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Thoreau Scholarship’s Docs Frederick, Transcendental Ethos: A Study of Thoreau’s Social Philosophy

  • Author(s): Michael J. Frederick
  • Date: 1998-11
  • Subject(s): antebellum reform, civil disobedience, gandhi, social philosophy
  • Title: Transcendental Ethos: A Study of Thoreau’s Social Philosophy and Its Consistency in Relation to Antebellum Reform
  • Item type: Master’s thesis
  • Institution: Harvard University
  • Abstract: This study investigated the consistency of Henry David Thoreau’s social philosophy in relation to Antebellum reform. Some critics have argued that Thoreau was influenced by radical Abolitionism to such an extent that it led him to defend John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry Virginia in 1859 on the eve of the American Civil War. Many believe “A Plea for Captain John Brown” is an indication of just how far Thoreau departed from his earlier views on reform, especially those expressed in his essay on “Resistance to Civil Government.” A close examination of Thoreau’s writings reveals that he was not, however, a pacifist as is commonly assumed. “A Plea,” which uses the phrase, “resistance to tyranny,” is remarkably consistent with the epistemology and moral sentiment of Thoreau’s earlier views on reform including “Resistance to Civil Government.” Thoreau’s reform essays are structured on the basis of Transcendentalist principles and do not necessarily represent a radical break with tradition. Kantian idealism, French Eclecticism, and Unitarian ethics are underlying aspects of Thoreau’s Transcendental ethos. An understanding of these and their subsequent influence on New England Transcendentalism helps to elucidate some of the apparent contradictions in Thoreau’s political essays. Apart from various influences and qualifiers, Thoreau’s reform essays are remarkable consistent contextually as well.
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