Arcadian Exile: The Imaginative Tension in Henry David Thoreau's Political Thought
The purpose of this dissertation is to correct oversimplified readings of Henry David Thoreau's political thought by elucidating a tension within his imagination. Drawing on the work of Claes Ryn, imagination is here conceived as a form of consciousness that is creative and constitutive of our most basic sense of reality. The imagination both shapes and is shaped by will/desire and is capable of a broad and qualitatively diverse range of intuition which varies depending on one's orientation of will. The criterion for determining the quality of the orientation of will and imagination is experiential reality of a certain kind. The moral and philosophical life constantly involves a struggle between an attunement or will to reality and a revolt against, or an evasion of, reality. The former characterizes the higher will and the corresponding moral imagination, while the revolt or evasion distinguishes the lower will and the idyllic imagination. This study outlines a theory of imagination and applies it to an analysis of the moral-idyllic tension in Thoreau's political thought. Thoreau's preference for an abstract, ahistorical "higher law," his radical concept of autonomy, and his frustration with government and community foster an impractical political thought characteristic of the idyllic imagination. Nevertheless, Thoreau demonstrates a moral imagination by emphasizing the inescapable relationship between the moral order of individuals and the order of political communities. This study further applies the theory of imagination to Thoreau's view of nature and the non-human world. On the idyllic side is the Thoreau who longs for an escape from human community and social obligations by withdrawing to nature, and by idealizing the non-human world as a perfect companion and as divine. On the moral side is the Thoreau that awakens others to the underappreciated sanctity, beauty, mystery and value of nature. Thoreau's overall vision ultimately creates significant problems with which environmentalists still struggle. While Thoreau's emphasis on freedom and the immaterial aspects of human and non-human nature are of considerable value, his abstract political morality, misanthropy and escapism must be resisted both for the sake of environmental well-being and human dignity.
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