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Thoreau, Henry David (1817–62)

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-DC081-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC081-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 17, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/thoreau-henry-david-1817-62/v-1

Article Summary

Thoreau was one of the founders of the new literature that emerged within the fledgling culture of the United States in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. He inherited an education in the classics and in the transcendentalism of his older friend and teacher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau forged a means of writing which was dedicated to recording particular events in all their transience but capable of rendering graphic the permanent laws of nature and conscience. His incorporation of both confidence and self-questioning into the texture of his writing forms the ground of his standpoint as an observer of human lives and other natural histories.

Thoreau’s relation to philosophy goes beyond his inheritance from Plato, Kant, Emerson and Eastern thought. Above all, his quest for philosophy is evident in the ways his writing seeks its own foundations. It is in the act of writing that Thoreau locates the perspectives within which to give an account of the humanness of a life. His project is to report sincerely and unselfconsciously a life of passion and simplicity, using himself as a representative of basic human needs and projects. Influenced by Plato’s Republic, Thoreau gives an account of some basic human needs, such as food, shelter and society. But also, like Plato, he shows that the particular institutions by which human needs are met are very far from being necessary. Tracing the relationship between need and necessity is one of the primary goals of Thoreau’s work.

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Citing this article:
Gould, Timothy. Thoreau, Henry David (1817–62), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC081-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/thoreau-henry-david-1817-62/v-1.
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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