Critics slam Thoreau for his constant contradictions, and I agree that at times they can be off-putting. Thoreau’s commitment to the counter-argument makes discerning his true convictions based on a single passage or chapter of Walden a frustrating and impractical endeavor. Following the overall themes of the book and Thoreau’s evolution throughout it, however, can serve as more reliable indicators. One issue Thoreau seems to contradict himself on, especially in his chapter “Higher Laws,” is food ethics. He begins the chapter by condoning hunting, but quickly follows with a lengthy passage addressing the problematic nature of eating animals. Ultimately, he concludes that switching to a plant-based diet is the next evolutionary step for humanity. I argue that in the larger context of Walden, this does not represent contradiction as much as maturation, and the belief that “purity” is what both individuals and society must strive for.
A plant-based diet embodies the innocence, purity, and simplicity that define Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond. At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau expresses a passive curiosity in a plant-based diet based solely on its simplicity. But by “Higher Laws,” he has realized that not only is vegetarianism simple—it is pure. To eat meat is “unclean,” inflicts unnecessary harm, and indulges gluttony (simple-eating’s enemy). Buell makes a complementary claim: the deep consideration Thoreau begins to demonstrate towards nonhuman animals in “Higher Laws” reveals his developing environmental ethic and overall shift in focus from “homocentrism” to “ecocentrism” (Buell 532). Furthermore, the progression of thought throughout the chapter and book symbolically represent maturation from childhood to adulthood.
In childhood, empathy and sympathy have not fully developed, so hunting is just an experience that connects children with nature. As adults, however, we are able to comprehend suffering and understand the wrongness of inflicting harm on animals. This maturation is conveyed first by the structure of the chapter, which places the discussion of hunting’s benefits for children prior to the discussion of eating animal’s harms to man. In the passage I studied, Thoreau makes use of metamorphosis as a metaphor to further this argument. “Voracious caterpillars” and “gluttonous maggots” represent meat-eaters, who consume without conscience or consideration. In a larval (immature) state, they cannot be expected to know or do better. Upon metamorphosing (or maturing), however, the adult butterfly or fly require only “a drop or two of honey” (Thoreau 146). The example of the butterfly is particularly striking, since butterflies are widely considered to be the most beautiful of the insects—even though, as Thoreau acknowledges, the mature butterfly maintains the abdomen of the larvae. Man therefore faces a choice: remain a “gross feeder,” forever stuck in the larval state, or become a butterfly and consciously fight his “insectivorous fate.” By choosing the latter, man achieves simplicity, beauty, and the freedom that only wings can offer. This is Thoreau’s vision for humanity.
But Thoreau did not begin with such a well thought out food ethic. He first makes mention of a plant-based diet toward the beginning of his introductory chapter, “Economy.” He notes the irony in a farmer’s claim that “you cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with” while oxen pull his plough with “vegetable-made bones” (Thoreau 9-10). Later in the chapter, he makes an even more direct statement, saying, “a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength” (45). Here, Thoreau uses the word “simple” to describe the diet of animals, which eat only what is absolutely necessary to survive. It is true that this sentiment is reflected later in “Higher Laws,” when he promotes seasonal eating (“fruits eaten temperately”) and criticizes the superfluous, writing, “…put an extra condiment on your dish and it will poison you” (146). But in this chapter, unlike in “Economy,” Thoreau seems to connect his quest to live simply with his growing idolization of nature in its purity.
While the beginning of the book takes what Buell calls a “homocentric” (or anthropocentric) approach, in “Higher Laws,” Thoreau starts to argue that humans should abstain from eating animals because it is impure practice. Purity has multiple meanings, both physical and moral. Thoreau addresses both of these in the passage, beginning with the unclean nature of eating fish and other animals, and concluding with examples of the corrupt nature of killing animals. The physical definition of purity is “free from contamination or physical impurity; not mixed with anything that corrupts or impairs; untainted, clean” (“Pure”). Thoreau’s first argument against eating animals emerges from this definition. He writes, “there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh” (Thoreau 146). The smell and sight of flesh taint and dirty his cabin, which is supposed to be a sanctuary from society’s distasteful practices. Having sworn off the frivolous sins of society, he finds it difficult to reconcile simple, pure living with the human practice of cooking animals.
The moral definition of purity is “free from moral corruption; of unblemished character or nature; morally untainted; guiltless, innocent, guileless” (“Pure”). Thoreau provides us with two striking examples that speak to this form of purity: snaring rabbits and slaughtering lambs. Thoreau had already addressed snaring rabbits two pages prior when he wrote, “the hare in its extremity cries like a child” (Thoreau 145). Therefore, it is not a stretch to suppose that the rabbit Thoreau refers to here is the same hare that cries like a child. And while lambs are obviously baby sheep, the word is also used to refer to human beings—namely young children. According to the OED, a lamb applied to humans is “one who is meek, gentle, innocent, or weak” (“Lamb”). In this instance, Thoreau employs metonymy to deliver his message. The examples he provides are not uncommon animals for humans to kill, but in the context these two creatures are intended to bring to mind the innocent.
In case we may doubt Thoreau’s intentions, his next words are, “…he will be regarded a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet” (Thoreau 147). An “innocent diet” is not a phrase we come across often. Why does Thoreau advocate for this? I believe that he sees animals as uncorrupted beings—innocent, pure, free, beautiful. He feels no right to take their lives for human consumption. Thoreau’s support for a simpler society and his desire to direct mankind toward a path of purity over corruption makes his argument against killing animals far more compelling then his commendation of hunting.
The transformation in Thoreau’s approach to a plant-based diet, from a mere experiment in living simply to “part of the destiny of the human race” reveals the impact of Walden Pond on his environmental ethics. For children, respect for nature is fostered through experiencing it in the context of hunting. In his passage discussing hunting, he specifically refers to its value for children “ten to fourteen” whose “hunting and fishing grounds…were more boundless than that of a savage” (Thoreau 144). In the nature, he begins to gain a better understanding of what it means to be civilized. If children who hunt are more boundless than “savages,” in adulthood they must join civilized society as ethical plant-eaters. This ecocentric shift that Buell identifies in “Thoreau and the Natural Environment,” places a reverence for nature and the value of nonhuman animals above wanton human desires. The connections with simplicity exemplify the moral self-regulation that, according to Buell, define Thoreau’s project in frugality (Buell 537). A man can allow himself to remain in an immature, larval state forever or choose a simple, pure life by exercising restraint in consumption.
Buell, Lawrence. “Thoreau and the Natural Environment.” The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, edited by Joel Myerson, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 171-93.
“lamb, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 1 October 2016.
“pure, adj., adv., and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 1 October 2016.
Thoreau, Henry David, and William Rossi John. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessments, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.