Monday, June 01, 2009

Instances of Reactivation, Part VI

In the next couple of posts, I want to compare passages from Thoreau and Emerson to passages from Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?”

Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!” –Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

“I tried to help him [John Field, an impoverished Irish immigrant] with my experience, telling him that he was one of my nearest neighbors, and that I too, who came a-fishing here, and looked like a loafer, was getting my living like himself; that I lived in a tight, light, and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent of such a ruin as his commonly amounts to; and how, if he chose, he might in a month or two build himself a palace of his own; that I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them; again, as I did not work hard, I did not have to eat hard, and it cost me but a trifle for my food; but as he began with tea, and coffee and butter, and milk and beef, he had to work hard to pay for them, and when he had worked hard he had to eat hard again to repair the waste of his system,--and so it was as broad as it was long, indeed it was broader than it was long, for he was discontented and wasted his life into the bargain; and yet he had rated it as a gain in coming to America; that here you could get tea and coffee, and meat every day. But the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things. For I purposely talked to him as if he were a philosopher, or desired to be one. I should be glad if all the meadows on the earth were left in a wild state, if that were the consequence of men’s beginning to redeem themselves. A man will not need to study history to find out what is best for his own culture. But alas! The culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe.” - Thoreau, Walden, chapter 10: Baker Farm

“Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction, nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so easy not to be of age.” –Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

“Before I had reached the pond some fresh impulse had brought out John Field, with altered mind, letting go “bogging” ere this sunset. But he, poor man, disturbed only a couple of fins while I was catching a fair string, and he said it was his luck; but when we changed seats in the boat luck changed seats, too. Poor John Field!—I trust he does not read this, unless he will improve by it,--thinking to live by some derivative old-country mode in this primitive new country,--to catch perch with shiners. It is good bait sometimes, I allow. With his horizon all his own, yet he a poor man, born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty or poor life, his Adam’s grandmother and boggy ways, not to rise in this world, he nor his posterity, till their wading webbed bog-trotting feet get talaria to their heels.” –Thoreau, Walden, chapter 10: Baker Farm


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