NKU Professor Examines Writings of Henry David Thoreau in New Book
Northern Kentucky University associate professor of political science Jonathan McKenzie’s first book has been released.
The Political Thought of Henry David Thoreau: Privatism and the Practice of Philosophy examines the writings of writer, philosopher, naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, one of the many polymaths of the American Renaissance, gained prominence for Walden, a meditation on living simply while immersed in nature, and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” which, arising in part from Thoreau’s disgust with slavery, argues that citizens should not allow the government to make them agents for injustice.
McKenzie, however, analyzes not only Thoreau’s well-known works but also his journals and correspondence to provide a fresh portrait of the Sage of Walden as a radical individualist. “The Journal—less distilled, more comprehensive, more imaginative, more varied,” he argues, “provides a clearer picture into the philosophical world of Thoreau’s writing. Thoreau’s private writings do not present a private philosophy, but they inform the nuance of his privatism that is espoused in the major essays.” This new account also explores the influence that ancient philosophers, particularly Socrates and the Stoics, had on Thoreau.
McKenzie situates Thoreau’s political thought within the often misunderstood philosophy of privatism, the voluntary detachment from political life to insulate the individual from the sway of the public. Thoreau, however, does not fit into typical patterns of privatism—the detached Stoic, the moralist Christian, or the beauty-driven aesthetician. Rather, McKenzie sees Thoreau as shaping a political personality that can withstand the seductions (and personal costs) of democracy. Like Socrates, Thoreau’s citizenship is disengaged and inwardly focused, but maintains an eye on the public sphere, if only to maintain an absence of injustice in one’s own life.
According to McKenzie, Thoreau’s bedrock contributions in “Civil Disobedience,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” and “A Plea for Captain John Brown” emerge not as definitive statements of political moralism, but as critiques of political and social life that engage the inner life in a serious and comprehensive way. Shunning grand abstractions and cosmopolitanism in favor of the wonders of daily life, Thoreau’s work provides a critique of political and social life that seeks to restore the wholeness of the human subject by rescuing it from the clutches of public concerns. Indeed, McKenzie’s nuanced, provocative analysis reveals Thoreau as a multifaceted philosopher who brilliantly wrestled with the complexities of ethical participation in modern democracy.
- From University Press of Kentucky/Image provided