Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thoreau's Prophetic Myopia

A recent article by Kathryn Shulz in the New Yorker, "Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau's Moral Myopia" has some great things to say about self-styled prophets and prophecy. I quote the following:

"One may reach good ends by bad means, and Thoreau did. ‘Not a particle of respect had he to the opinions of any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth itself,’ Emerson wrote of Thoreau. He meant it as praise, but the trouble with that position—and the deepest of all the troubles disturbing the waters of ‘Walden’—is that it assumes that Thoreau had some better way of discerning the truth than other people did.

"Thoreau, for one, did assume that. Like his fellow-transcendentalists, he was suspicious of tradition and institutions, and regarded personal intuition and direct revelation as superior foundations for both spiritual and secular beliefs. Unlike his fellow-transcendentalists, he also regarded his own particular intuitions and revelations as superior to those of other people. ‘Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men,’ he wrote in ‘Walden,’ ‘it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded.’

"Claiming special guidance by the gods is the posture of the prophet: of one who believes himself in possession of revealed truth and therefore entitled—even obliged—to enlighten others. Thoreau, comfortable with that posture, sneered at those who were not. (‘They don’t want to have any prophets born into their families—damn them!’) But prophecy makes for poor political philosophy, for at least two reasons.

"The first concerns the problem of fallibility. [Here Schulz addresses Civil Disobedience and the claim of conscience. But what if society is right and one’s conscience is wrong? How can you decide between them? This requires some standard of governance beyond private conscience.] It is the point of democracy to adjudicate among such conflicting claims through some means other than fiat or force, but Thoreau was not interested in that process.

"Nor was he interested in subjecting his claims to logical scrutiny. And this is the second problem with basing one’s beliefs on personal intuition and direct revelation: it justifies the substitution of anecdote and authority for evidence and reason. The result, in ‘Walden,’ is an unnavigable thicket of contradiction and caprice. . . . To reject all certainties but one’s own is the behavior of a zealot; to issue contradictory decrees based on private whim is that of a despot. . . . [Thoreau is a man whose spirit resembles no one but] Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, elitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. . . . [‘Walden’ is] a book about how to live that says next to nothing about how to live with other people."