Is Henry David Thoreau a philosopher, too? Andrea Nightingale votes yes.


“He thought you could be awake every day.”

“He wanted to hear the language of the earth…”

This year our nation celebrates the bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau. But few of the commemorations have considered Thoreau as a philosopher, focusing instead on Thoreau as a champion of civil disobedience and the author of Walden.  Los Angeles Review of Books’ new Entitled Opinions channel fills the gap here.

Thoreau the philosopher? It’s a tough sell, according to Stanford Prof. Andrea Nightingale, who teaches a course on Thoreau and is the featured guest for this episode. Philosophers don’t consider Thoreau one of their tribe because “he didn’t mount arguments.” She continued: “Then and now, intellectual labor has always been privileged over manual labor. For Thoreau, you needed to learn things with your hands. You needed to get your hands dirty… I think manual labor is part of his philosophy in a very significant way.”

Nightingale and Robert Harrison discuss a common phrase in Walden: “to be awake,” which Thoreau took in a spiritual sense as a state of being. For him, it involved a deep sense of attunement to the natural world, in what Thoreau called an “infinite expectation of the dawn.”

Potent Quotes

“Your metaphysical desire can have an infinite object which is God. If you let go of that, your unlimited desires just want more and more and more.”

Harrison at the mic (Photo: L.A. Cicero)


“Thoreau found in nature an infinite manifestation of something deep and fulfilling – and it kept expanding and getting more vibrant.”

“He wanted to hear the language of the earth. … He was very interested in the wind in the trees – one way in which nature is publishing a set of ideas.”

“He thought you could be awake every day.”

“His point of course was to learn how to dwell on the earth in this mode of vibrancy.”

Check out the whole interview here.

Nightingale the philosopher

By the way, Nightingale writes and teaches Greek and Roman philosophy and literature – but she also teaches a course on Thoreau. And she has written on the philosophy and literature of ecology as well. Nightingale, a frequent Entitled Opinions guest, is the author of Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy and Spectacles of Truth: Theoria in its Cultural Context (both with Cambridge University Press) and Once out of Nature: Augustine on Time and the Body (University of Chicago Press).

And read more about Robert Harrison’s thoughts on Thoreau here.

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