Socrates and Thoreau

My favorite quote from Henry David Thoreau runs as follows:

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

A paper recently published in The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies (“Finding Walden in Emerson’s Plato” by Mark Gallagher) sheds light on the ancient roots of Thoreau’s conception of the philosopher. During his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau occasionally perused Emerson’s copy of Plato’s dialogues as translated by Floyer Sydenham and Thomas Taylor in 1804. On the margins of page 336 of volume 1, Gallagher found a curious sketch of a small house, which looks like the house that Thoreau built at the pond. On the same page, someone (Thoreau?) underlined some significant words in the following passage from Book VI of Plato’s Republic (499e-500a):

Do not thus altogether accuse the multitude; but, whatever opinion they may have, without upbraiding them, but rather encouraging them, and revoking the reproach thrown on philosophy, point out to them the persons you call philosophers, and define distinctly, as at present, both their genius and their pursuits, that they may not think you speak of such as they call philosophers.

Here Socrates draws a distinction between those whom most people would identify as philosophers (back then, Sophists; nowadays, professors and other big idea people) and those who really are philosophers. The difference is that the real philosophers live according to the dictates of wisdom. Gallagher argues that Socrates was not only a model for Thoreau’s portrait of the ideal philosopher, but that Walden can be seen as an apologia for Thoreau’s way of life in Concord – much as Plato’s Apology was a defense of Socrates’ way of life in Athens.

These insights give us a fresh perspective on Thoreau’s Walden, which is perhaps the greatest book of philosophy as a way of life in the modern era. If I ever get around to publishing a second edition of my book The Upland Farm: Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life, I’ll strive to place these connections into even stronger relief.

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