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Why thinker Henry David Thoreau remains more relevant than ever

Two centuries after his birth, US naturalist and poet-philosopher Henry David Thoreau can still contribute to current political and ecological discussions. Here's how.

American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago, on July 12, 1817. The anniversary is monumental enough to prompt two new biographies being published in Germany.

DW spoke with Dieter Schulz, author of "Henry David Thoreau - Wege eines amerikanischen Schriftstellers," (Henry David Thoreau - Paths of an American author) about just how contemporary Thoreau's centuries-old writings are in today's political climate.

Deutsche Welle: You introduce your book about Henry David Thoreau by stating that when you "started writing it, no one could have suspected the development that would take place in the months to come in the United States." Even if you do not specifically mention him in your introduction, I am guessing you are referring to US President Donald Trump. Why do you open your book this way?

Dieter Schulz: The development - Trump - was of course depressing on the one hand. I never would have thought that someone like him could make it so far. On the other hand, it became even more important for me - writing the book truly got me out of this morass - to focus on a figure that can be considered a representative of the United States, of a fair and respectable America, whose values and ideals I respect very much. That is perhaps also the characteristic style of the book: It's more of a laudation than it is a critical appraisal.

I find what he stood for, the values he presented, very appealing, and especially now, as the political establishment has failed on a broad scale - and I don't just mean the Republicans and Trump. I think it's extremely essential to recall a person who actually stood for a tradition of resistance against immoral governments or a purely materialistic interpretation of the American Dream.

At first superficial glance, one could almost think that Thoreau would have something in common with Trump, Steve Bannon, and the alt-right movement. Why is that so fundamentally wrong?

You're right. There are people on the extreme right, such as the Tea Party, who cite someone like Thoreau in their rejection or distrust of the government - any kind of government, regardless of what it does and stands for. That's an old American tradition - and a conflicting one.

 Author Dieter Schulz (Mattes Verlag)

Thoreau biographer Dieter Schulz

But you have to distinguish between the people who justify the rejection of the State or governmental regulation in order to develop more freely - and more recklessly - their monetary interests, through stock investment etc. This is the materialist variation: self-fulfillment through economic development. That is one side.

But Thoreau rather considered that the highest authority over the government - and ultimately sometimes against the government - was one's own conscience. In other words,he was someone who placed a great deal of emphasis on the responsibility of the individual. So one's conscience is the authority that dictates a higher law within us, and it is not the law of the market, or the creed of Wall Street, or of stocks. That is the major difference.

The second major subject that is always discussed in connection with Thoreau has to do with his book "Walden" and the retreat to nature. But there, too, if I understood your book correctly, one has to take a closer look. Thoreau wasn't advocating a complete withdrawal from civilization and a retreat into nature…

Buchcover Dieter Schulz Henry David Thoreau

The cover of the book by Dieter Schulz

Yes, one has to distinguish between the cult and myth of Thoreau and true reality. He did not withdraw into total isolation. He says that at the beginning of the book. He built his cabin on the edge of Walden Pond, "a mile from any neighbor." That's not a great distance!

So he needed some distance from society in order to gain perspective about society. He meant that when you are in the thick of things, it is difficult to scrutinize them and take a critical look. So that's why it's important to take a step back, but a relative one. To relocate, but not too far away. So he always had an eye on his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, and kept contact with people there. It was more of a commuting kind of existence. He was in Concord almost every day.

So, the approach was: yes, a retreat to nature, not purely for the sake of nature, but to gain perspective on society and civilization in order to illuminate how civilization works. Even when he was at the pond, it was still about civilization and how to improve it or how to keep its damage to a minimum.

What about religion? He speaks of God with regard to nature.

Well, just some biographical facts for starters: When he was supposed to pay church taxes for the first time, he left the church. And it is unknown, with the exception of one or two times, if he ever entered attended a church service again. So, on the one hand, he was very skeptical of a church in the established form, or religion in its established form.

On the other hand, he had a very strong religious impulse. And I think the way that he approached nature…his studies of nature are very intense, very detailed, with a huge amount of information and facts, especially in his diary. Ultimately, nature was to him what it was to his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson: the Divine made visible. Nature gave him access to a spiritual principle that had been perverted, or covered over, by social-cultural mechanisms, or at least was not accessible in the way he hoped it to be in nature and which he did indeed find to some extent.

Thoreau on a stamp (picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Amendola)

Still cult in US to this day: Thoreau on a stamp

Reading your book, I got the impression that this writer is extremely contemporary today. Many people are still citing him and perhaps even making life plans based on his ideas - even though that's sometimes based on an oversimplification of his views. What is so contemporary about him?

His nature studies, for one thing. There are nature researchers today who make direct connections to him, such as in climate research. He was one of the first people who noted and documented climate changes and changes in the seasons over a longer period of time.

A study came out a few years ago by a geologist, who wrote that the manner in which Thoreau depicted natural phenomena - particularly with regard to the larger connections, how everything is connected and not just singular or isolated phenomena, as it is often viewed in the natural sciences, and that things are connected over a longer period of time - could be a model for how one approaches climate research today.

Henry David Thoreau Schriftsteller (picture-alliance/Glasshouse Images)

Born on July 12, 1817, Henry David Thoreau died aged 44

And then there is the political element - the Occupy Wall Street movement of years ago, and the protests of now. People could learn a lot from Thoreau and his essay "Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience)." Not just in general, but in concrete aspects, such as with regard to the deportation of illegal immigrants. In his day, Thoreau advocated that slaves that had escaped be transported to freedom in Canada, and not be sent back to their owners in the South.

Mark Greif, one of the thinkers behind Occupy Wall Street, believes that in terms of social-cultural and political problems, one could take a kind of "T test." It would be called "WWTD: What would Thoreau do?" A question posed to reflect on how one views the system, but also how to specifically tackle concrete problems.

So, in this day and age of Trump and populism, Thoreau has again become extremely contemporary - particularly over these last six months. 



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