The Chronicle Review

Thoreau’s Cynicism, and Our Own

Carole Hénaff for The Chronicle Review

March 19, 2017

P erhaps it’s time to reassess the virtues of cynicism — that deep and abiding suspicion of all things organized. The rise of Donald Trump was, at least in part, founded on this suspicion, on the belief that the political and cultural establishment was fundamentally botched. Trump’s supporters heartily accept a motto, endorsed by the 19th-century American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, "that government is best that governs least." But they misunderstand the nature and context of Thoreau’s cynicism, for, unlike them, he was cosmopolitan, not nationalistic, and spiritual, not materialistic.

Thoreau, who was born two centuries ago this year, was arguably the first, and most thoroughgoing, American cynic. And there is, it is true, at least a family resemblance between the cynicism of today and the philosophy that he developed in the 1840s. Thoreau was, for example, no friend to the liberal elitist window dressing of New England. He attended Harvard, but only begrudgingly, and the snobbery of academe grated on this son of a pencil maker. He quickly decided that universities, even the best ones, might teach "all of the branches of learning" but "none of the roots." Deep education, the lessons that actually stick, are, according to Thoreau, practical, hands-on, and best learned in the world beyond the classroom walls. When Thoreau escaped in 1845 to Walden Pond, two miles from his native Concord, Mass., it was, at least in part, in search of that sort of education.

Thoreau was also on a quest to embody that most Emersonian of ideals, self-reliance. Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and 14 years his senior, had also taken issue with the high intellectual culture of Harvard and Cambridge and argued that there was often a high price of admission to modern institutions and organizations: the freedom to exercise one’s autonomy. Thoreau’s apparent separation from society — his move away from city life — was an attempt to "live deliberately, to front the essential facts of life," to see if he "could not learn what it had to teach." The point of his two-year experiment with simple living was to see what life could be like without the corrupting forces of social conventions and traditional politics.

A ll of this is consonant with cynicism’s long history. But as one looks more closely at that history, and at Thoreau, it becomes clear that modern cynics truncate, or pointedly misunderstand, the full scope of cynicism as a school of thought and Thoreau’s rendition of it.

The first Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope, epitomized the ideal of simplicity that Thoreau sought to revive in the 19th century. At Walden, Thoreau lived in a 10-by-15-foot boarded cabin; Diogenes had done him one better, living in an overturned barrel, clothed only in rags. He stood against another school of philosophy, Epicureanism, which, in its distorted modern form but not in its ancient original one, espouses that the meaning of life could be grasped in the opulence of civilization. The Cynics, and Thoreau, too, wanted to know what life would be like without societal constraints, but also, and more important, without the trappings of material wealth.

Today many so-called cynics are also self-reliant capitalists. Their suspicion of big government and institutional control is rooted in the sense that those agents cheat people out of the riches to which they are entitled. Of course, this idea would have been anathema to Diogenes, who would have believed that our age has erred grievously in confusing material wealth with human prosperity writ large.

According to legend, Diogenes would sit in his barrel and bark at wealthy pedestrians ("cynic" comes from the Greek word kynikos, meaning doglike). Thoreau took a slightly more subtle approach to criticizing modern capitalism, but only slightly. The first chapter of Walden, titled "Economy," is a spirited critique of modern materialism. The term "economy," Thoreau reminds his readers, was not originally about what one possessed as surplus, but rather where, or, more specifically, how one lived. He traces economy back to the Greek word oikos: a dwelling, a habitat, a house.

At Walden, by divesting himself of life’s excesses, Thoreau attempts to relearn what goes into making a place for oneself and appreciating the priceless things — virtue, beauty, peace — that money can’t buy. "Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life," he attests, "are not only not indispensable but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." Today, "making a living" often has nothing to do with life itself, but rather, and disturbingly, with its deferral, a sacrificing of the present moment for the sake of future wealth. Thoreau knows that oikos has another meaning beyond dwelling or home; it can, and often does, refer to a cage.

T horeau’s apparent escape to the outskirts of civilization might look as if it anticipates the separatist mind-set of many modern cynics, but it doesn’t. As Robert Richardson noted some 30 years ago in his biography of Thoreau, his "venture was in no sense a retreat or withdrawal. He himself thought of it as a step forward, a liberation, a new beginning." Cynicism maintains its distance from society in order to gain a critical vantage point on social ills, but also, and just as important, to re-evaluate what is, at once, most personally significant and universally true about life.

When Diogenes was asked about his country of origin, he famously claimed not to have one. This is not unlike Thoreau’s refusal to participate in — or pay taxes to — a nation whose policies he could not sanction (in this case, Thoreau refused to support the Mexican-American War). In a barrel, in a shanty shack, in a prison, in the middle of nowhere — you get the very real sense that, existentially speaking, you are not bound to any particular political locus. That can be quite isolating, but also liberating, and ultimately — rather surprisingly — unifying.

For Diogenes said he was a citizen of the cosmos at large — a cosmopolitan in the most literal sense. Thoreau, too, at the end of Walden, celebrates the universal man and woman in spring’s cosmic renewal. This is the other, largely forgotten, side of cynicism: The suspicion of all things organized gives way to the belief that human beings are, in fact, deeply and universally related — tied together not by convention but by nature. Institutions may be corrupt and corrupting, but the true danger of societal constraints is that they isolate people and place false boundaries between cultural groups.

On one side of cynicism, then, is the critical, or negative. On the other is hope — hope for a community that transcends any particular provincial loyalty. Cynicism downplays our traditional attachments to religion, economics, and politics. In so doing, it frees us to realize the bonds that exist beyond those self-imposed borders.

If Trumpians seek authentic cynicism, they can help make America great again by bettering the world, by thinking for themselves, by casting a skeptical eye toward jingoism, and by shedding the clutter of egoistic affluence.

John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. His book American Philosophy: A Love Story was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.