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Henry David Thoreau

Postby ShowJumpingRabbit » Wed May 16, 2018 5:38 am

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Re: Henry David Thoreau

Postby anathegram » Thu May 17, 2018 8:50 am

Thoreau probably qualifies for some kind of PD, anyway. I think the introduction of this article makes a good case, especially those journal entries. The author lost me a bit when he started using the Billboard 100 as evidence of… something.

Wikipedia's criticism section on him has some good bits:
Wikipedia wrote:Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson judged Thoreau's endorsement of living alone and apart from modern society in natural simplicity to be a mark of "unmanly" effeminacy and "womanish solitude".

Women and their solitude! :roll:
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Re: Henry David Thoreau

Postby muaddib » Thu May 17, 2018 4:33 pm

I'm a big fan of Thoreau. I'm not sure if it was this presentation or something similar, but I've read articles before about whether he had a personality disorder.

I think it's tricky to just label Thoreau as a schizoid though. He does superficially have a lot of "symptoms," but it's hard to entirely separate them from his political and philosophical programme (except maybe for being a lifelong bachelor after the marriage proposal incident).

It kind of gets to something that keeps coming up on the forum though. I mean, if you just take anything published in the DSM as gospel, the psychologists can pathologize anything they want. At what point do you just admit that the guy saying, "Hey, I don't want to live in a village of self-righteous hypocrites and become a wage-laborer just to help Polk invade Mexico," might be right?
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Re: Henry David Thoreau

Postby ShowJumpingRabbit » Sat May 19, 2018 5:14 am

anathegram wrote:The author lost me a bit when he started using the Billboard 100 as evidence of… something.


When did he do that ?

anathegram wrote:Women and their solitude!


It's a weird comment,especially coming from Stevenson ...

muaddib wrote:At what point do you just admit that the guy saying, "Hey, I don't want to live in a village of self-righteous hypocrites and become a wage-laborer just to help Polk invade Mexico," might be right?


I respect some of his views, and find him brave in expressing them outwardly at the time. I believe possible to have similar views as him without condescension (although condescension doesn't indicate a disorder): finding people wrong but still loving them. But depending on the topic, I find his radicalism either visionary or problematic, depending on the topic, I find him either radically right or troubled.
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Re: Henry David Thoreau

Postby muaddib » Sat May 19, 2018 6:41 pm

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:
anathegram wrote:The author lost me a bit when he started using the Billboard 100 as evidence of… something.

When did he do that ?

It was the paragraph that suddenly brought up the Alessia Cara song. What's weird is that I swear I've seen that paragraph in a totally different essay (could someone be plagiarizing somebody? tsk-tsk)

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:
muaddib wrote:At what point do you just admit that the guy saying, "Hey, I don't want to live in a village of self-righteous hypocrites and become a wage-laborer just to help Polk invade Mexico," might be right?

I respect some of his views, and find him brave in expressing them outwardly at the time. I believe possible to have similar views as him without condescension (although condescension doesn't indicate a disorder): finding people wrong but still loving them. But depending on the topic, I find his radicalism either visionary or problematic, depending on the topic, I find him either radically right or troubled.

Well, I think the essay makes good points but it also leaves some really important things out, things that jump out right at you in Thoreau's actual writing. And I think that some of them do entirely change how you have to interpret / evaluate him.

Probably the main one off the top of my head is that he pretty much explicitly declares himself an unofficial Hindu on several occasions. IIRC, every time he quotes the Bible, he's either doing it mockingly or at least ironically to imply people are hypocrites, but the guy had a serious hard-on for the Vedas and Upanishads. So if you try to apply Christian moral judgments to him (or assuming you're from the West, just commonly assumed ones), you'll probably wind up disapproving of him a lot.

He starts making a lot more sense if you relate his actions to Hindu concepts though. His disdain for slavery, the Mexican-American War, and even eating meat can all be seen as expressions of ahimsa, whereas he honestly might of seen John Brown as a sort of American Arjuna, who commits violence out of pure duty and self-sacrifice rather than selfishness.

Another thing is that in all his criticisms of other people, he never really suggests that he's "smarter" or "better" than others, only that fate has somehow made him "freer". His condescension almost always revolves around how others' actions are futile or motivated out of illusions too. Even the way he spent his early adulthood making several attempts (however awkward) at a conventional life before going his own way resembles transitioning from the Vedic life-stage of householder to forest-dweller.
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Re: Henry David Thoreau

Postby ShowJumpingRabbit » Wed May 23, 2018 5:38 am

muaddib wrote:It was the paragraph that suddenly brought up the Alessia Cara song.


Oh yeah, ok.

muaddib wrote:What's weird is that I swear I've seen that paragraph in a totally different essay (could someone be plagiarizing somebody? tsk-tsk)


Here maybe ? https://manifestamagazine.com/2016/02/01/oh-god-why-am-i-here-alessia-cara-and-the-normalization-of-social-anxiety/

muaddib wrote:Probably the main one off the top of my head is that he pretty much explicitly declares himself an unofficial Hindu on several occasions. IIRC, every time he quotes the Bible, he's either doing it mockingly or at least ironically to imply people are hypocrites, but the guy had a serious hard-on for the Vedas and Upanishads. So if you try to apply Christian moral judgments to him (or assuming you're from the West, just commonly assumed ones), you'll probably wind up disapproving of him a lot.

He starts making a lot more sense if you relate his actions to Hindu concepts though. His disdain for slavery, the Mexican-American War, and even eating meat can all be seen as expressions of ahimsa, whereas he honestly might of seen John Brown as a sort of American Arjuna, who commits violence out of pure duty and self-sacrifice rather than selfishness.

...
And I think that some of them do entirely change how you have to interpret / evaluate him.


I didn't know that and, under this light, his attraction to Hinduism makes sense. But the faith/type of spirituality he embraced can't help justify some of his choices.

Another thing is that in all his criticisms of other people, he never really suggests that he's "smarter" or "better" than others, only that fate has somehow made him "freer".


Same difference: he knows, they don't.

His condescension almost always revolves around how others' actions are futile or motivated out of illusions too.


How freer must have he been ? In which ways ? Is he not also running away from himself in some ways ?
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Re: Henry David Thoreau

Postby muaddib » Wed May 23, 2018 4:40 pm

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:
muaddib wrote:What's weird is that I swear I've seen that paragraph in a totally different essay (could someone be plagiarizing somebody? tsk-tsk)

Here maybe ? https://manifestamagazine.com/2016/02/01/oh-god-why-am-i-here-alessia-cara-and-the-normalization-of-social-anxiety/

Could be, though that doesn't look like the same wording. Maybe I just remembered the awkward attempt to shoehorn pop culture into things.... but it is a pretty good song (and relatively subversive for pop):



ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:I didn't know that and, under this light, his attraction to Hinduism makes sense. But the faith/type of spirituality he embraced can't help justify some of his choices.

Well, I don't think he necessarily used it to specifically justify anything, but if you want to understand how he was thinking, it's crucial. I'd say Hindu philosophy and the destruction of slavery are the two things that are never far from the surface in any of his philosophical and political works.

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:
muaddib wrote:Another thing is that in all his criticisms of other people, he never really suggests that he's "smarter" or "better" than others, only that fate has somehow made him "freer".

Same difference: he knows, they don't.

I think there is a difference though: Do you pride yourself on having earned your own position or sort of accept it as a gift / duty from fate? If you read Thoreau, however much criticism he heaps on others, when he discusses himself, he sounds more like Socrates refusing to disobey his daemon than someone resting on his laurels. I think where people get hung up is that his daemon told him to reject the Protestant work-ethic and obsession with economic activity that many people take as an unquestioned good.

If your criticism is that he'd even presume to know what others don't, I'd honestly feel like that expectation is more dangerous than any sort of condescension. At the very least, I think it implies that value judgments and knowledge are effectively impossible beyond whatever the community already believes. If you take it all the way, then it makes even scientific progress impossible; the only way knowledge and values could improve for one group is being conquered by another.

War would be the only dialectic. And as crazy as it may sound at first, you could say it's no coincidence that when the average American dismissed people like Thoreau as offish curmudgeons and idealists, a war is exactly what we wound up with.

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:
muaddib wrote:His condescension almost always revolves around how others' actions are futile or motivated out of illusions too.

How freer must have he been?

This is one more thing where he was straight-up following the Upanishads:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moksha

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:In which ways?

Essentially, while he didn't just come out and say it explicitly (he was living in Concord, Mass. and not India after all), he didn't let the worldly concerns of his neighbors and instincts control his life:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_(religion)

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:Is he not also running away from himself in some ways?

Now that I think is the interesting question and where the article you linked to has a lot of good insights. I personally feel it's a bit of yes and no, depending on what you think the self really is (and yet again, don't ignore that the Hindus have their own ideas about that):
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C4%80tman_(Hinduism)

The one thing that is clear from his own words is that Thoreau saw himself as searching for himself, which would match up with the Hindu concept. However, if you read enough about him and connect the dots in his writing, he definitely was conflicted about other people. So I think your article brings up a lot of good points about how he would distance himself from society, but even then, like the article suggests, I don't think he just fled whole-heartedly. I think he recognized his social maladjustment was a problem and he did struggle with it throughout his life.

TL/DR: Despite some tangents about Alessia Cara, the article brings up a lot of good points, but I think you really have to read him and a little about his life to get a solid fix on Thoreau. If you do read him though, never forget that he is sort of a crypto-Hindu and militantly anti-slavery.
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Re: Henry David Thoreau

Postby ShowJumpingRabbit » Wed Jun 06, 2018 5:45 pm

muaddib wrote:but it is a pretty good song (and relatively subversive for pop):


It's nice :)

muaddib wrote:Well, I don't think he necessarily used it to specifically justify anything, but if you want to understand how he was thinking, it's crucial.


I read the beginning of Walden a while ago, and I remember being under the impression that he was rationalizing some of his choices (could have a look to be more precise)

muaddib wrote:I think there is a difference though: Do you pride yourself on having earned your own position or sort of accept it as a gift / duty from fate? If you read Thoreau, however much criticism he heaps on others, when he discusses himself, he sounds more like Socrates refusing to disobey his daemon than someone resting on his laurels. I think where people get hung up is that his daemon told him to reject the Protestant work-ethic and obsession with economic activity that many people take as an unquestioned good.


There's a part of him that I find brave and visionary (anti-slavery)
a part of him that I find repulsive (rationalizing his tax evasion as protestation against slavery)
a part of him that I empathize with (his struggles connecting with people)

muaddib wrote:If your criticism is that he'd even presume to know what others don't


That's the vibe he sends. Tbh, most of us do in areas where our qualities shine. But it seems to me there is wisdom in realizing that there are areas where other people shine as well and that we sometimes miss on learning from them when keeping to areas we are comfortable in. You know ... Ivory citadels and fortified strongholds :)

muaddib wrote:And as crazy as it may sound at first, you could say it's no coincidence that when the average American dismissed people like Thoreau as offish curmudgeons and idealists, a war is exactly what we wound up with.


It's no coincidence.

Image

muaddib wrote:Essentially, while he didn't just come out and say it explicitly (he was living in Concord, Mass. and not India after all), he didn't let the worldly concerns of his neighbors and instincts control his life:


Do you need spirituality to achieve that?

muaddib wrote:The one thing that is clear from his own words is that Thoreau saw himself as searching for himself, which would match up with the Hindu concept. However, if you read enough about him and connect the dots in his writing, he definitely was conflicted about other people. So I think your article brings up a lot of good points about how he would distance himself from society, but even then, like the article suggests, I don't think he just fled whole-heartedly. I think he recognized his social maladjustment was a problem and he did struggle with it throughout his life.


I approve this psychological profiling. Maybe he was not looking in the right place?

muaddib wrote:If you do read him though, never forget that he is sort of a crypto-Hindu and militantly anti-slavery.


The crypto-Hindu thing might have echoed his own psychological dispositions (for bad or good, maybe both). The anti-slavery stance was him not relenting from interrogating preestablished conceptions under both the lens of logic and ethics . Pure intellectual badassery. Love it.
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Re: Henry David Thoreau

Postby muaddib » Thu Jun 07, 2018 11:08 pm

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:
muaddib wrote:Well, I don't think he necessarily used it to specifically justify anything, but if you want to understand how he was thinking, it's crucial.

I read the beginning of Walden a while ago, and I remember being under the impression that he was rationalizing some of his choices (could have a look to be more precise)

I might agree with you a little here. Some of his withdrawal from society probably was self-indulgent, but my guess (it's been a while since I've read Walden through) is that it was probably a bit of both.

When I try to think what exactly makes the difference between rationalizing a choice and justifying it, it doesn't come down to what authority you appeal to. I think it's more a matter of whether you're using your reasons to regress or progress psychologically. It seems to me Thoreau's time at Walden pond was a mix of the two, varying even from day to day.

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:a part of him that I find repulsive (rationalizing his tax evasion as protestation against slavery)

Ah, see that's interesting. I've heard other people say this, and it genuinely surprises me. I always figured that if Thoreau made people uncomfortable, it was either because he supported John Brown or he had a misanthropic streak.

Just wondering, it has nothing to do with whether he was right or not, but are you from the US? It's just because I realized this might look different to someone from another country. Most Americans have a really weird love-hate relationship with the government, and I think it makes open tax-refusal seem more of an honest protest to many here (I suppose including me :D ). Taxes in general have always had major symbolic importance here too; after all, "no taxation without representation" was the closest we came to a revolutionary slogan against the British. I can see how if you're from another country where people relate to the state differently, it might look more cynical.

More to your point though and like I was saying, I think this is somewhere Thoreau genuinely doesn't fit conventional Western morality. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I take it you're looking at it as "independent of one's reasons, not paying taxes inherently harms society and benefits oneself, therefore it's bad"?

This is entirely my own out-there interpretation, but I'd say in that light, Thoreau is almost an American preview of Nietzsche combined with Marx's views on labor. In a way, even though he definitely didn't have a distilled theory about it, Thoreau saw the issue as less of a spectrum between right and wrong and more of a trilemma between freedom, peace, and sociability. You can pick any two, but if you then want more of the third, you have to give up some of the others.

Conventional Western morality arguably treats sociability as the first priority, then peace as the second, only trading peace for freedom to the extent the elites are threatened. I think Thoreau was clearly arguing for freedom first, then largely sacrificing sociability for peace. Funny enough, around the same time, Schopenhauer in Germany was doing something similar. As for why Thoreau prioritized freedom so much, I think some of it has to do with his personality and also how he understood things, which I discuss more below.

The main implication though is maybe there's not as much choice in the matter as first appears. It might be that if he had emphasized paying his taxes, he would have faced another dilemma. He could live and think as less of a free man (a point he actually made, that the poll-tax really added no social value; it just forced him to work for someone with hard-currency for x hours instead of managing his own public and private affairs). Or he would have become even a little more like John Brown.

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:
muaddib wrote:If your criticism is that he'd even presume to know what others don't

That's the vibe he sends. Tbh, most of us do in areas where our qualities shine. But it seems to me there is wisdom in realizing that there are areas where other people shine as well and that we sometimes miss on learning from them when keeping to areas we are comfortable in.

I'll admit he isn't always humble and clearly thinks others are wrong about some things. I don't think he was opposed to learning from others at all though, he was just particularly skeptical of convention. It actually overlaps a whole lot with what I was just mentioning on the magic thread.

I think he's pretty explicit in Walden that he didn't see himself establishing an example for others so much as an experiment (I think he even uses that exact word). You might say a lot of his ideas come down to freeing yourself from assumptions formed through imitation. Instead, you test things first-hand, or you reflect on the contradictions in people's beliefs. That's another way in which he's almost like a moderate, American predecessor to Nietzsche.

For example, I do remember one of his anecdotes towards the beginning of Walden is that a neighbor tells him he can't survive as a vegetarian because "plant food has nothing to build the bones." Thoreau points out though that as the neighbor was saying this, he was driving oxen that live only on grass and are bigger than both of them. Another story he jokes about is hearing of a man that resolved to only eat raw maize; I think Thoreau said something to the effect that while it ultimately just ruined the man's teeth, he respected the underlying spirit, the willingness to test things oneself and accept the consequences.

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:
muaddib wrote:Essentially, while he didn't just come out and say it explicitly (he was living in Concord, Mass. and not India after all), he didn't let the worldly concerns of his neighbors and instincts control his life:

Do you need spirituality to achieve that?

By spirituality, do you just mean asceticism and withdrawing from the world? In that case, I don't think so, but it varies case by case. I know there are lots of stories from other religions of mystics seeking enlightenment by hanging out with prostitutes and criminals in taverns. If I had to make a wild guess though, besides society, I think his conflicted feelings about industry and nature might be a particular reason he chose to live in a hut on the edge of town.

ShowJumpingRabbit wrote:
muaddib wrote:The one thing that is clear from his own words is that Thoreau saw himself as searching for himself, which would match up with the Hindu concept. However, if you read enough about him and connect the dots in his writing, he definitely was conflicted about other people.

I approve this psychological profiling. Maybe he was not looking in the right place?

So I tried thinking a little... and I simply can't say. In many ways (and you said you struggle with it too), I'm still looking for myself and how to reach a good relationship with society. Since I still don't know what the right place for me to look is, I can't really say if he could have approached the problem of himself better.
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Re: Henry David Thoreau

Postby ShowJumpingRabbit » Sat Jun 09, 2018 5:23 am

muaddib wrote:I might agree with you a little here. Some of his withdrawal from society probably was self-indulgent, but my guess (it's been a while since I've read Walden through) is that it was probably a bit of both.


I don't see withdrawing as self-indulgent. I see withdrawing as an expression of discomfort. At least for me, it is. But I withdraw nowhere in the same proportions as Thoreau.

muaddib wrote:Just wondering, it has nothing to do with whether he was right or not, but are you from the US? It's just because I realized this might look different to someone from another country. Most Americans have a really weird love-hate relationship with the government, and I think it makes open tax-refusal seem more of an honest protest to many here (I suppose including me ). Taxes in general have always had major symbolic importance here too; after all, "no taxation without representation" was the closest we came to a revolutionary slogan against the British. I can see how if you're from another country where people relate to the state differently, it might look more cynical.


I'm a permanent resident and aware of this cultural fear of taxation. You're mentioning the British as a source of trauma, and I never thought about that to be honest, that's a fair point.

But for a while people could also seize lands from Native Americans without being held accountable. It must have been quite inebriating. Adding to the fear of governments "coming into my pockets".

Going back from the tangent, I don't underestimate the weight of collective unconscious on people from every culture. But Thoreau seemed sharp and at times proved himself able to raise above this type of considerations.

muaddib wrote:Correct me if I'm wrong, but I take it you're looking at it as "independent of one's reasons, not paying taxes inherently harms society and benefits oneself, therefore it's bad"?


It's not just that. My mother often rationalizes her not paying taxes as political resistance, but truthfully, it's just entitlement (similar to Frank's ramblings in Shameless, if this is a show you've watched) and when I started reading Walden I picked up on a similar streak :( :)

muaddib wrote:Thoreau saw the issue as less of a spectrum between right and wrong and more of a trilemma between freedom, peace, and sociability. You can pick any two, but if you then want more of the third, you have to give up some of the others.


... Or you can strike a balance?

muaddib wrote:The main implication though is maybe there's not as much choice in the matter as first appears. It might be that if he had emphasized paying his taxes, he would have faced another dilemma. He could live and think as less of a free man (a point he actually made, that the poll-tax really added no social value; it just forced him to work for someone with hard-currency for x hours instead of managing his own public and private affairs). Or he would have become even a little more like John Brown.


But as I wanted to argue above, I feel like freedom does not equate absence of responsibility.

muaddib wrote:he was just particularly skeptical of convention. It actually overlaps a whole lot with what I was just mentioning on the magic thread.

I think he's pretty explicit in Walden that he didn't see himself establishing an example for others so much as an experiment (I think he even uses that exact word). You might say a lot of his ideas come down to freeing yourself from assumptions formed through imitation. Instead, you test things first-hand, or you reflect on the contradictions in people's beliefs.


I see nothing wrong with that ...

muaddib wrote:So I tried thinking a little... and I simply can't say. In many ways (and you said you struggle with it too), I'm still looking for myself and how to reach a good relationship with society.


I am not sure when I wrote this. But I think it may have had to do with coping. How to cope with the ... general madness ! ... Sounds emphatic :|

muaddib wrote:Since I still don't know what the right place for me to look is, I can't really say if he could have approached the problem of himself better.


I feel like the right place to look into can be a place of discomfort, a place we want to avoid, the last place we want to check in into. But in the days of Thoreau, psychology was at embryonic stage, I don't know that he could have looked into that ... I really would have to read him again to form a new opinion.
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