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“The wisest man preaches no doctrines; he has no scheme; he sees no rafter, not even a cobweb, against the heavens. It is clear sky.”

October 11, 2009

Henry David Thoreau

From the first edition of the book (1849).

“Most people with whom I talk,” writes Thoreau in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “men and women even of some originality and genius, have their scheme of the universe all cut and dried,—very dry, I assure you, to hear, dry enough to burn, dry-rotted and powder-post, methinks,—which they set up between you and them in the shortest intercourse; an ancient and tottering frame with all its boards blown off. They do not walk without their bed. Some, to me, seemingly very unimportant and unsubstantial things and relations, are for them everlastingly settled,—as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the like. These are like the everlasting hills to them. But in all my wanderings I never came across the least vestige of authority for these things. They have not left so distinct a trace as the delicate flower of a remote geological period on the coal in my grate. The wisest man preaches no doctrines; he has no scheme; he sees no rafter, not even a cobweb, against the heavens. It is clear sky.”

Setting aside the argument of the passage here quoted, which strikes me as unimpeachable (and as an anticipation of certain “anti-foundationalist” strains in American pragmatism), the prose itself is remarkable for variety in tone, syntax, grammar, & in length of sentence (from the wonderful hypotaxis of the first sentence here quoted to the simple parataxis of the last two); remarkable for the way Thoreau takes an old trope (“cut and dried”) and draws out reductio ad absurdum, as we so seldom do, its figurative implications; for the way he then sums up the whole of those implications in a novel and striking figure of his own (most of us “do not walk without [our] bed”: i.e., we are forever “asleep” in our own schemes & systems, and never once awaken); for the way he sets “geological time,” which was in the 1840s a relatively new concept, over against such “cobweb” ephemera as The doctrine of the Trinity “and the like,” as he phrases it with such easy & dismissive Thoreauvian dispatch (he prefers his geology to anyone’s theology); for the way he finds that ancient “delicate flower” burning in the coal in his grate (once, the flower took in the energy of the sun; then it was pressed into coal; then, æons later, that coal was mined; and now, through these several transformations, that ancient “delicate flower” brings the stored-up heat of the sun into Thoreau’s private chamber in a new flowering of flame); and finally for the way Thoreau takes us from that deep-earth bound flowery coal upwards in the last and shortest sentence of the passage: “It is clear sky.”

Cf. the first comment below for a brief account of, to take one example, Richard Rorty’s pragmatic anti-foundationalism. For other commentaries on prose style in this blog, click here and here and here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2009 5:40 AM

    From the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (a link to which you’ll find on the side-bar to the right of the main page of my site: “To hold that no vocabulary is final is also to hold that no vocabulary can be free of unthematized yet optional assumptions. Hence any effort to circumvent a philosophical problem by making such assumptions visible is subject to its own circumvention. Accordingly, the fact that Rorty often distances himself from the terms in which he earlier framed arguments and made diagnoses is in itself no reason to impose on him, as some have done, a temporal dichotomy. It may be that Rorty’s early work, inspired by a less critical, less dialectical reading of Quine and Sellars than that offered in [his later work], is more constructive than therapeutic in tone and jargon, and therefore from Rorty’s later perspective in an important sense misguided. However, what ties together all Rorty’s work, over time and across themes, is his complete lack of faith in the idea that there is an ideal vocabulary, one which contains all genuine discursive options. Rorty designates this faith Platonism (an important theme in [his book] ‘Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.’ That there are no inescapable forms of description is a thought which permeates Rorty’s work from the 1960s right through his later therapeutic articulations of pragmatism. These characterizations of pragmatism in terms of anti-foundationalism, of anti-representationalism, of anti-essentialism are explicitly parasitic on constructive efforts in epistemology and metaphysics, and are intended to high-light the various ways that these efforts remain under the spell of a Platonic faith in ideal concepts and mandatory forms of descriptions.”


  1. Compassion is a very untenable ground: Thoreau’s Dead Horse « The Era of Casual Fridays

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