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To Be and Not to be (Misanthropic)

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In her piece, “Pond Scum”, Kathryn Schulz analyzes Henry David Thoreau through a series of short excerpts from his works. She questions why Thoreau is as “idolized” as he is. Thus, the focus of her argument lies in that he should not be as important of a figure as he is as he is more flawed than most are willing to admit. She comes to describe him as immature and self contradictory. Amongst these claims, Schulz refers to Thoreau as a misanthrope. While he may come off as disliking certain aspects of his peers, it is hardly fair to limit him within the definition of misanthrope when his writing lends to him to be more grey shade than a simple black and white.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The first component of Thoreau’s misanthropy in Schulz’s argument was his hypocrisy: “The hypocrisy is not that Thoreau aspired to solitude and self-sufficiency but kept going home for cookies and company.” She points out that “he preached at others to live as he did not,” which suggests that he thought of himself as better than the rest of mankind. Schulz goes on to claim that he viewed “his fellow-humans [as having] the same moral status as doormats,” from whom Thoreau retreated into the woods. She argues that his treatment of said peers is improper, quoting him in saying, that “objects of charity are not guests,” in paragraph 16 of “Visitors”. In that same vein, philanthropy was not considered to be worthy of one’s time. The following quotation from paragraph 9 of “Economy” is characterized as an example of Thoreau’s arrogance towards humankind: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In each of these cases and the quotes that are pulled, the context is missed as well as other tidbits of information from other works. There is some validity to her arguments; however, they are too extreme to support the claim that Thoreau is a misanthrope.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In reading “Pond Scum,” it appears as though Thoreau disliked the very thought of social interaction in Concord. From as much information as is presented, however, it doesn’t seem as though he is disgusted by these people; rather, the thought of having to be a proper civilized man for an extended period of time amongst a group of people with whom he did not necessarily share the same ideologies was revolting. In reading the first paragraph of “The Village”, Thoreau discusses life in and around the village. Contrary to Schulz’s claim, Thoreau openly admits to going into village.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Every day or two [he] strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which taken in homoeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 He goes on to describe how his ventures into the village were as his walks into the woods, a chance to study its inhabitants. Schulz claimed that Thoreau was disinterested in his fellow humans, and yet this passage clearly contradicts that idea. In continuing through the first paragraph, Thoreau uses the words “terrible” and “dangers” to describe invitations to each of the houses in the village. Structured social interactions in which one was expected to behave according to proper etiquette, for one who takes enjoyment from being in the quiet solitude of nature, one can hardly blame him for his disinterest in attending. His handling of the situation isn’t the most mature:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Sometimes [he] bolted suddenly, and nobody could tell [his] whereabouts, for [he] did not stand much about gracefulness, and never hesitated at a gap in a fence.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 Certainly he could have politely turned down any invitation, but there is a childlikeness about him that wants to avoid conflict. In finishing the first paragraph, it would be easy to say that Thoreau was a misanthrope as he says that he “so escaped to the woods again.” However, as someone who finds people to be exhausting after a point, it is easy to relate to Thoreau in this situation. He enjoys company to a point then needs to regain his breathing space. Such is it necessary to walk a mile in the other man’s shoes.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 While the jury may still be out on the “proper” interpretation of the quote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Schulz finds it to be “off-putting and empirically dubious.” However, Thoreau’s intention is one of parental guidance, only hoping for the best without any ill intent. In reviewing the context of this quotation,found in paragraph 9 of “Economy”, Thoreau concludes that even the “games and amusements of mankind” are concealing “unconscious despair.” For such a profound statement, it would be difficult to come to such a conclusion without any experience or deep investigation of mankind. In pulling himself from the heart of society, Thoreau was able to live a “simpler life,” allowing him to declutter life and see it as it were. Schulz also thinks that this statement doesn’t include its speaker within its bounds, making it obnoxious and not defensible. However, it doesn’t seem as though everyone is included in this statement. It says “the mass of men.” The mass is the majority; however, there are minorities on either side of the majority. There are those to be considered “less than” and those to be “above” that which would be considered the majority. Thoreau thought of himself as one of the “above.” Regardless of whether he was or wasn’t, these minorities are also included in this. “[It] appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet honestly they think there is no choice left.” Thoreau wishes to see mankind look beyond the standard way of living to see the possibilities. It is less of a dislike for humans than a desire to see them improve and join the minority which has so cleverly been removed from the first statement. It could be said that Thoreau was judging society in a manner of disgust and disinterest. However, it must also be questioned as to why he would do such thing and then turn around and seek company amongst such a hopeless lot.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Schulz moves on to say that “this thoroughgoing misanthrope did not care to help other people.” However, for Thoreau, philanthropic endeavors are meant to be a lifestyle: “[A man’s] goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious.” To demonstrate this point, Thoreau thoroughly explains how money cannot be given exclusively but requires the giving of one’s self in paragraph 106 of “Economy”: “Be sure that you give the poor the aid they most need, though it be your example which leaves them far behind. If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them.” Thoreau views philanthropy as a means by which men can selfishly boast in themselves. “Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it.” Indeed, Thoreau admits to having “indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises” going on to confess that “it [did] not agree with [his] constitution.” Interestingly enough, while admitting to dislike the practice, he also says that “[he] never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than [himself].” While it could be easy to call the man a hypocrite, he openly admits to being unable to live the life which should be embodied in an ideal world.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In this way, Thoreau suggests himself to be a member of the majority which he previously declared to be “[leading] lives of quiet desperation” and had removed himself from. While this paints Thoreau to be quite the hero, he was not without flaw. His childlike nature continues into his thoughts on how the government should rule; that is, as Thoreau opens “Resistance to Civil Government,” not at all. He expected too much from a culture that was not about to bend to one man’s will. He portrayed a misanthropic tone in his dislike society as it was, but sought to improve it even if he could not demonstrate the changes he wanted to see.