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FROM THE JOURNAL
OF HENRY D. THOREAU
EDITED BY H. G. O. BLAKE
Ever-renewed assurance by defeat
That victory is somehow still to reach;
But love is victory, the prise itself.
BOSTON AND NEW YORK
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY
To those who are not specially interested in the character of Thoreau, who regard him merely as a writer who has sometimes expressed original thoughts in a happy way, who has made some interesting observations of natural phenomena, and at times written beautifully about nature, it may seem hardly worth while to publish more of his journal. But from time to time I meet with or receive letters from persons who feel the same deep interest in him as an individual, in his thoughts and views of life, that. I do, and who, I am sure, will eagerly welcome any additional expression of that individuality. Of course there are many such persons of whom I do not hear.
Thoreau himself regarded literature as altogether secondary to life, strange as this may seem to those who think of him as a hermit or dreamer, shunning what are commonly considered as among the most important practical realities, trade, politics, the church, the institutions of society generally. He took little part in these things because he believed they would stand in the way of his truest life, and to attain that, as far as possible, he knew to be his first business in the world. Even in a philanthropic point of view, any superficial benefit he might confer by throwing himself into the current of society would be as nothing compared with the loss of real power and influence which would result from disobedience to his highest instincts. "Ice that merely performs the office of a burning glass does not do its duty." It was not sufficient for him to entertain and express as an author "subtle thoughts," but he aspired rather "so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust," "to solve some of the problems of life not only theoretically, but practically." It is the clear insight early creating a deep, persistent determination so to live, rather than his genius, which gives value to Thoreau's work, though this insight itself may well be regarded as the highest form of genius. It is the attitude one takes toward the world, far more than any abilities he may possess, which gives significance to his life. It has been well said by Brownlee Brown that "courage, piety, wit, zeal, learning, eloquence, avail nothing, unless the man is right."
As the young pass out of childhood, that foretaste or symbol of the kingdom of heaven, the expression of serene innocence is too apt to fade from their faces and the clouds to gather there, while it is considered a matter of course that each one should attach himself to the social machine. One becomes a lawyer, another a clergyman, another a physician,another a merchant, and the treasure which the childlike soul has lost is sought to be regained in some general and far-off way by society at large. But the burden which men thus readily take upon themselves in the common race for comfort, luxury, and social position is out of all proportion to their spiritual vitality, and so the truest life of individuals is being continually sacrificed to the Juggernaut of society. Men associate almost universally in the shallower and falser part of their natures, so that while institutions may seem to flourish, corruption is also gaining ground through the spiritual failure of individuals; finally the fabric falls, and a new form rises to go through the same round. The highest form of civilization at the present day seems to be an advance upon all that have preceded it, though in some particulars it plainly falls behind. Perhaps only by this alternate rising and falling can the human race advance.
But the progress of individuals is the essential thing; only so far as that takes place will the real progress of the race follow, and those persons contribute most to this real progress who, stepping aside from the ordinary routine, give us by their lives and thoughts a new sense of the reality of what is best, of the ideal towards which all civilization must aim; who are so in love with truth, rectitude, and the beauty of the world, including in this, first of all, the original, unimpaired beauty of the human soul, that they have little care for material prosperity, social position, or public opinion. It was not merely nature in the ordinary sense, plants, animals, the landscape, etc., which attracted Thoreau. He is continually manifesting a human interest in natural objects, and thoughts of an ideal friendship are forever haunting him. Touching the highest and fairest relation of one human soul to another, I do not believe there can be found in literature, ancient or modern, anything filler, anything which comes closer home to our best experience, than what appears in Thoreau's writings generally, and especially in "Wednesday" of the "Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers."