Thoreau’s Journal: on writing (why and how)

I have already written a couple of essays on Henry David Thoreau (here and here), because his brand of personal philosophy — within the broader umbrella of American Transcendentalism — fits very much the mold of practical philosophy to which Figs in Winter is devoted. Here I wish to briefly comment on some excerpts from his personal journal (published as part of a broader collection edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer), partly because of its inherent interest, and partly because of course journaling is a major Stoic technique (as evident from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations), though implemented somewhat differently from what Thoreau does.

“Though I write every day, yet when I say a good thing it seems as if I wrote but rarely.” (26 February 1841)

It’s a thought shared by pretty much every writer, and that one wishes were more common in this era of instantaneous publishing on the web, since the clutter resulting from ignoring this basic truth is threatening to destroy public discourse. The notion, moreover, could profitably be turned into a personal rule of conduct, as Epictetus does:

“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink – common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.” (Enchiridion 33.2)

That is, be mindful that much of what you are inclined to speak (or write) about is just not that interesting or worth putting out there. Thoreau clearly thinks that writing is, or at the least should be, tightly interwoven with actual living:

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” (19 August 1851)

He is talking about the necessity to have something interesting to say as a result of first person experience, but the Stoic notion that “practice” (i.e., living) is what makes “theory” (i.e., philosophizing) worth the effort is not far from that sentiment.

“Having by chance recorded a few disconnected thoughts and then brought them into juxtaposition, they suggest a whole new field in which it was possible to labor and to think. Thought begat thought.” (22 January 1852)

That’s not just an excellent reason to write, but, perhaps even more, to read. As you know if you follow this site, or any of the other ones featuring my writings, you might have noticed that I write a lot. And I read much more, roughly on at least a 5:1, sometimes 10:1 ratio (depending on the subject matter, how much background knowledge I already have, and so forth — that ratio was significantly higher at the beginning of my career, several decades ago). Reading is food for thought, as they say, and writing is the gym where you spend that food in order to create understanding, both in yourself and, hopefully, in others. That’s a major reason why I love blogging and have been doing it since 2005: it’s a public mental gym, where I improve myself while sharing with readers materials that will, ideally, enhance their own lives.

“I would rather write books than lectures.” (6 December 1054)

This thought struck me as interesting because it reflects my own preference for writing books rather than technical papers, which is a dying practice in the academy, not only in my more recently chosen career (philosophy), but even more so in my original one (biology). Writing a book is, of course, a whole different experience, one that takes years rather than weeks or months, but also one that, potentially at least, has a far greater and longer lasting impact. Part of the problem nowadays, however, is that just like anyone can create their own blog in minutes, anyone can upload their book to Kindle Direct Publishing, and voilà, no more need for editors, publishers, and other pesky “gatekeepers.” The result has been far more freedom and diversity of voices, but also an avalanche of garbage that is constantly put out there and that has a nasty tendency to drown the good stuff. I don’t have any solution to suggest for the problem, however. Do you?

“You can’t read any genuine history — as that of Herodotus or the Venerable Bede — without perceiving that our interest depends not on the subject but on the man — on the manner in which he treats the subject and the importance he gives it. … A genius — a Shakespeare, for instance—would make the history of his parish more interesting than another’s history of the world. Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told, and it depends chiefly on the story-teller or historian whether that is interesting or not.” (18 March 1861)

This strikes me as just as right as it is problematic. While it is certainly the case that I’d rather read about the history of the local parish written by Shakespeare than about the history of the world written by a bore, I ought to be far more interested in the latter than the former. Perhaps Plato had a point when, in the Republic, he said that he would ban poets from his ideal state, on the ground that their trade consists in emotionally manipulate people, and that such manipulation can easily be used for ill purposes (say, making you like Tony Soprano, instead of the people he takes advantage of).

I don’t wish to ban poets, but we can turn the table around and suggest instead that writers — of both fiction and non-fiction — have a duty to write not just beautifully and truthfully, but ethically. Writing, after all, is a tool, and like most tools, it is neutral with respect to the intentions of the person who uses it. It is up to that person to deploy her talent to improve both herself and the human cosmopolis. As Marcus puts it:

“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Meditations, IX.12)
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