Front Page Titles (by Subject) Thoreau on the Free Human Self - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
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Thoreau on the Free Human Self - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Thoreau on the Free Human Self
“God, Nature, and Personhood: Thoreau’s Alternative to Inanity.” Religion in Life 48(Spring 1979):101–113.
For Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), author of Walden and Civil Disobedience, transcendentalism was not an abstract ideology but an experiential way of life and freedom for the true human self. In each present moment he lived his convictions “deliberately” concerning intuitional knowledge of ultimate reality and the inherent divinity and goodness of the human soul. With his faith that the ultimates are immediately present in the here and now, Thoreau sought them in nature, in others, and in himself. Thoreau’s liberating view of human nature and the fulfillment of the human person can be seen in three principal convictions: (1) his belief in innate human divinity and capacity for the divine, (2) his affirmation of self-reliance as the basic method for achieving authentic existence, and (3) his optimism about the possibility of authentic existence. The content of these three convictions expresses Thoreau’s ideas on the nature of free persons.
Thoreau’s belief in our innate human divinity is analogous to his metaphysical views which discern two levels of reality—phenomenal and spiritual. In the human person these two levels correspond to our bodily nature and our spiritual nature. Thoreau, rejecting dualism, believed we are whole persons, body and souls, and that we should spiritualize our natural body. When Thoreau was imprisoned for his civilly disobedient refusal to pay a poll tax, he commented on the foolishness of the political functionaries who imprisoned him and believed they had thus captured his true self, whereas they imprisoned his body, not his meditative self. Thus, our real selfhood enables us to be free, to choose the good, and perceive true reality. True human freedom consists in liberating our true self from the bondage of the lower or animal nature. This is accomplished by exercising our awareness of higher reality and escaping the bondage of our dependence on luxuries and trivial things.
The affirmation of our self-reliance is the method by which we develop our true inner self. In Walden, Thoreau commends John Farmer whose sole concern was “to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.” To awaken the slumbering true self and inner divinity in us, “we must allow our spiritual nature to emancipate us from bondage to the trivial and inane.” We practice the process of self-evaluation by conscious attention to our inner self to discover its potentiality. Thoreau’s exhortation to free our true self and follow our “genius” encourages us to have faith in ourselves. “It is an exhortation to self-identity, self-dependence, self-integration, and self-reliance. We must not rely upon the society for our principles and values.”
Thoreau’s optimism concerning authentic existence flows from his belief in our spiritual nature and its potentiality. “Meaningful life is possible, but everyone must seek it out. Some will not find it, because they will not look. But each day is a new day, with new opportunities to look.” First and last Thoreau was concerned with life—with a full, authentic, and free life deliberately lived in the present moment.