Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Beyond Belief: Henry David Thoreau

If you read yesterday's post from Terry McKenna, perhaps you came away thinking that people like C.S. Lewis, who truly practiced their faith, offer us an example for a fresh model of leadership. What if we had such a true devout in the White House—one who consulted his heart of hearts, WWJD style, before going into a cabinet meeting with the likes of Dick, Condi, Hadley, Rove, and Rummy?

Well, first of all I'm not sure that's what Terry's message was about; and second, I have to point out that faith is spiritual chemotherapy: it accomplishes what it is designed to do, but only by sickening and compromising its host. Faith arises not from the conviction drawn on experience, but from the power born of fear. Thus does the way of belief inevitably lead us: it is so easy to slide into the morass of sloth, accumulation, and arrogance under the glossy shield of faith. We see it happening all the time, yet how often and how many of us can truly question it, and ask further what the alternatives to faith and belief might be? More of us, I trust, than Bush and his friends might suspect.

One guy who did is the author of a small body of work which is celebrated around the world, though least of all here in America. I have often wondered why Henry David Thoreau should be so neglected in the country of his birth, to which he gave so much (Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, among others, have cited Thoreau as a primary influence for their own work). How come Walden is not in every kid's schoolbag? Why aren't there young men and women going out into the woods to live as he did, in a spirit of self-examination and discovery?

Well, one clue to Thoreau's marginalization in his home country comes when you really start reading his work. It is simply too head-on, too challenging for a society bred in the worship of the human tools of violence (this goes for the so-called left as well as the neocon right). Try this reflection on the military mindset, which appears in the first essay of Civil Disobedience:

Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?

Now this was written around 150 years ago, yet it could have been written yesterday. So let me submit to you that this strong and gentle man, who went to jail rather than support an unjust war of occupation (in his case, the Mexican War) is a greater voice and a surer guide for our times than Lewis.

But was Thoreau a man of faith? It's not an entirely simple question to answer, so you may need to read him and decide for yourself. I suggest the opening of Chapter 5 of Walden, which is a night-hymn of worship to the storm in the woods, the creatures of the night, and the sacred, bodily sense of union with Nature. After this, the writer adds wryly, "I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced."

So would this man Henry David Thoreau have shouldered arms and marched dutifully off to Iraq, like a good and true conservative, if his nation called him to do so? Or would he at least have stood firm on the sidelines, using his rhetorical gifts to mouth platitudes about service and sacrifice and freedom and heroism, while encouraging the youth around him to go forth and die? Well, let's hear what he had to tell us about the way of service and sacrifice:

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others--as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders--serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.


Tomorrow: The Destruction of the Middle Class...


Game Room: Here are two new and topical diversions for our time and mind that I've found on the Web recently (note that I did indeed pass the 8th grade Math Test, though I was a little nervous about the result).

Quail Hunting School: shoot the birdies and avoid the old guy's face.

Take the 8th Grade Math Test:
You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 9/10 correct!

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