Henry David Thoreau
and the
New Model of the Human Being
Michael Forest
Visiting Fulbright Lecturer
Beijing Foreign Studies University
Michael Forest
• Visiting Fulbright Lecturer
Beijing Foreign Studies Univ.
• Associate Professor & Chair
Canisius College
Buffalo NY USA
Structure of the Presentation
Henry David Thoreau
Environmental Concerns Today
A Theory of Civilization Collapse
Growth and Increase
Thoreau Redux: Future Primitives
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
• A key figure in American
nature writing and
environmentalism. Thoreau is
foremost a moralist.
• Key texts are:
“Civil Disobedience” (1849)
Walden (1854)
“Walking” (1862)
Thoreau Chronology
1817 born in Concord, MA
1833 attends Harvard College
1837 graduates, meets Emerson, begins journal
1841 moves into Emerson’s house for 2 years
1842 brother dies; writes “A Natural History of
1845 moves to Walden Pond, July 4
1846 arrested & jailed; trip to climb Mt. Katahdin
1847 leaves Walden Pond
1849 publishes A Week on the Concord and Merrimack
1854 publishes Walden
1862 dies May 6 [age 44] Essays published posthumously
“When I wrote the
following pages, or
rather the bulk of them,
I lived alone, in the
woods, a mile from any
neighbor, in a house
which I had built myself,
on the shore of Walden
Pond, in Concord,
Massachusetts, and
earned my living by the
labor of my hands only.”
Sentence of
Critique of Progress
• Certainly in Economy, Thoreau critiques material
acquisition, what we today would call
• He casts the whole chapter in ironic economic
• Most pointedly, he gauges all expenses by ‘costs’
– “and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I
will call life which is required to be exchanged for
it, immediately or in the long run” (p. 26).
“What is the nature of the luxury which
enervates and destroys nations?” (Walden)
•Critique of Consumer Debt
•Critique of Status [esp. clothing ]
•The Virtue of Simplicity
The Retreat of the Hero
• After a brief opening, the first large
section of Economy is a castigation of
his fellow citizens. In effect, it is a harsh
assessment of the contemporary
American life.
• Immediately after that, Thoreau
retreats into the woods to heal himself.
His experiment is a re-grounding in the
source of life – the natural world and
its life-giving spirituality.
• In effect, his cabin in the woods is a
retreat that provides his needed time
to recover his power before he returns
to town.
Thoreau as Neophyte Naturalist
• One of the interesting features of Thoreau as a naturalist is
that he had no formal or family training.
• His education was a classical education – languages, poetry,
philosophy, literature.
• His family did not farm or work in the natural environment.
His father was a shopkeeper and had a small pencil factory.
• Thoreau learned to identify and cultivate the plants, locate
fish and animals and gauge the seasons by self-training
through books, conversations, journaling and many long
Thoreau on Primitive Peoples of the
Tierra del Fuego:
“Is it impossible to
combine the hardiness
of these savages with
the intellectualness of
the civilized man?”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Thoreau on ‘Savage’ in The Maine Woods
Thoreau gave the derivation of ‘savage’:
Latin: ‘slyva’ meant “woods”
‘selvaggia’ meant “woods-person”
Old French/Middle English: ‘salvage’ meant “woods”
‘sauvage’ meant "woods-person"
Source: Robert F. Sayre, Thoreau and the American Indian
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977); p. 8.
Thoreau on Primitivism
• Thoreau uses primitive
societies – or sometimes the
idea of primitive societies – as
a critique of his own society’s
• Thoreau especially valorized,
sometimes as a stereotype,
the Native Americans whom
he read about and met.
Thoreau’s Environmental Concerns
• Thoreau’s concerns were slightly different than
(a)A concern for the moral health of individuals
(b)A concern for the moral health of societies
(c)A concern for the use of nature as mere resource
to be exploited.
Thoreau presents a virtue based position.
Current Environmental Concerns
• Our concerns are larger in scale. We are
concerned not only for the moral health but also
the biological health of individuals and societies.
• Increasing Population + Increasing Consumption
• Freshwater shortages, ocean acidification, global
climate change, biodiversity loss, air quality, etc.
A Theory of Civilization Collapse
Environmental Degradation
as a Key Factor in Civilization
Example: Ancient Sumer
Source: Clive Ponting, A New Green
History of the World: The Environment
and the Collapse of Great Civilizations.
Rev. Edit. Penguin: 2007; pp. 36-86.
Artist Rendering: Sacred Precinct of
Nanna in Ur
Artwork by Balage Balogh,
The Human Defined as a
Member of Civilization
• Aristotle – civilization is the true
nature of humans
• Thomas Hobbes and the ‘state of
nature’: “continual fear and danger
of violent death, and the life of
man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish,
and short.”
Key Features of Hobbes’s Reduction
(1) Reduction of pre-civilized life to bestial terms;
(1) Reduction to the antithesis of all that is hoped for in
civilized life;
(2) It necessarily involves insufficient resources;
(4) His view that it is constant warfare.
Each one of these points is rejected by contemporary
anthropological studies on primitive peoples.
The “Future Primitive”
• A term from at least the 1990s used to signal a
future (hoped) return to the hunter-gatherer
• The Future Primitive ideal is generally an anticivilization movement, arguing that civilized
humans are more dangerous and barbaric to
the earth than the ecologically sustainable
Re-introduction of wolves into
Yellowstone Park in 1995 after
70 years.
• ‘Rewilding’ is a
conservation term
introduced in the 1990s
to promote large scale
conservation in North
America including the
re-introduction of large
• Rewilding seeks to
connect fragmented
natural areas and return
them to wilderness in a
scientifically credible
Pleistocene Rewilding
Re-Wilding Human Beings
• Humans were slowly domesticated. Our bodies changed
since domestication – another word for civilization – and
we overshot our ecological capacity.
• Returning to simpler forms of life, foraging for foods, and
slowly reducing overpopulations as humans re-integrate
into the natural environment are main goals of human
• In part, this development of
ideas in conservation,
rewilding, and the future
primitive are all pre-figured in
• Thoreau returns from the
woods to report that an
educated person can re-wild
themselves. Thoreau
advocates the simplicity of a
primitivist style of life and
seeks to advocate the
integration of primitivism back
into American society.
The Return of
the Hero
The Future Primitive
• “Is it impossible to combine the
hardiness of these savages with the
intellectualness of the civilized
man?” (p. 13).
• The answer is no, it is not impossible
to combine these two qualities,
since Thoreau is that person.
• The key to his “rewilding” is that
Thoreau was not a naturalist. He
was a bookish son of a local small
business man. He learned to
integrate himself into nature.
Conclusion: Future Primitives
• Thoreau, writing for his own
time and generation,
anticipated contemporary
proposals and advanced
himself and his book as an
image of the new human
• “The West of which I speak is
but another name for the
Wild; and what I have been
preparing to say is, that in
Wildness is the preservation
of the World” (from “Walking”

Future Primitives