Harrison Middleton University

Thoreau’s Walk and Leopold’s Ethic

Thoreau’s Walk and Leopold’s Ethic

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


January 29, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“It is not easy to realize the serene joy of all the earth, when she commences to shine unobstructedly, unless you have often been abroad alone in moonlight nights.” – Henry David Thoreau

Discussions this month focused on Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Night and Moonlight” combined with Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic.” Both pieces propose a journey into nature, a journey outside of oneself. Leopold and Thoreau emphasize that nature speaks to one aspect of our humanity, and therefore, is both useful and comforting.

We began the conversation with ideas of “serene joy,” of the difference between happiness and joy. Thoreau’s night walk proposes a different sort of perspective from the light of day, which, in turn, offers a different sort of introspection. In the darkness there are less distractions, less busy-ness. Night blurs all edges, making shape less distinct and because of this, Thoreau celebrates the way that night physically alters our perspective. He sees great value in this change and lists a variety of positive qualities of the night. For example, he says the vision is blurred, so other senses awaken. Furthermore, there is a great draw between earth and moon, which also exists between night and day, and man and nature.

This final point is of great importance to Thoreau, proven by the fact that he ends the essay with the line: “Nevertheless, even by night the sky is blue and not black, for we see through the shadow of the earth into the distant atmosphere of day, where the sunbeams are revelling.” The poetic nature of Thoreau’s words capture the reader, but also vividly describe a truth. Not only are sunbeams “revelling,” which sounds like an ecstatic process, but shadows exist. He acknowledges the introspective properties of shadow, dimness, night, and beauty. So, although Thoreau describes Endymion and his never-ending sleep, Thoreau himself does not believe that one should always sleep in the darkness, but use it for a journey. He challenges us to look at something starkly different from our norm and find beauty in it.

Likewise, Leopold asks us to re-evaluate our relationship with nature. He claims that, historically, we have viewed land for reasons of economic gain, shelter and utility. However, he places importance on the natural aspects of nature itself. First, he presents the idea that the land is vastly more complex than we have previously (and probably currently) comprehend. He sketches the following bullet points to underscore his argument:

1] That land is not merely soil.
2] That the native plants and animals kept the energy circuit open; others may or may not.
3] That man-made changes are of a different order than evolutionary changes, and have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen.

From this he posits the vital question: Can the earth continue to exist with the changes that are currently being made? Without answering the question, however, he asks us also to think in broader terms than mere economy. He says, “[Q]uit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Furthermore, he questions the human ability to judge what is most ethical and most economically expedient. These questions kept us busy in discussion. For example, how does one judge by beauty? He rarely mentions beauty, so the use of it here is interesting. We did not come to a conclusion as to what beauty might mean to Leopold, though most agreed that he intends to say a thing is beautiful, and therefore has a claim to life, if it exists naturally. Beauty does not depend on utility in any sense, but he argues that many things have a sort of utility because they maintain a sense of diversity. He clearly separates this from any sense of economic use.

These pieces broadly discuss questions of nature, ethics, beauty, diversity, and happiness, among others. Therefore, our discussions wandered through a wide swath of territory. For example, some of the participants felt that Leopold muddied his own argument by including outside references to the Bible, Torah, or mythology. In contrast, Thoreau’s use of outside sources created a poetic quality that enhanced his already poetic argument.

Though there are differences in tone and writing style, both pieces undersore the idea that perspective is not a fixed entity. They also share the idea that nature is integral to humans, not only for survival, but for enjoyment and peace. And finally, they use movement, image and allusion, which invites the reader on a journey as well.

I immensely enjoyed these conversations. Thanks to each participant for their time and comments. I look forward to hearing from you again and, as always, we invite you to join the next conversation. Email as****@hm*.edu for more information.

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