The Sage Engaged - Presented in Beijing, China, 10-08

The Sage Engaged: How Chinese Ideas of the Superior Person Influenced the Worldview of H.D.Thoreau

This paper was presented at a conference at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, in October 2008

by Linda Brown Holt, D.Litt.

For someone who wrote, “Simplify, simplify,” in his masterpiece, Walden, Henry David Thoreau was anything but a simple human being. Readers of Thoreau remark on the complexity and changeability of the man and his thoughts. We find him forcefully bearing the standard of abolitionism…and pretending disinterest on who is elected President on the eve of the American Civil War. He cries for the preservation of wildness, but looks on, perhaps sheepishly, as a fire that he and a friend accidentally set ravishes more than 100 acres.

He was a gruff contrarian, who would usually say the opposite of what anyone else affirmed, he was vilified as antisocial, yet children adored him, and one who grew up to become a famous novelist lovingly eulogized him as Pan, the spritely god of the forest. Some of his neighbors thought he was a loafer and good-for-nothing, and yet he worked hard, for pay, all his short life, as a surveyor, teacher, businessman, and yes, even as a professional writer. Records show that he contributed regularly to the cost of his parents’ homestead and, after his father’s death, became the head of the household and CEO of the family pencil-making business.

Even when he lived as the so-called Hermit of Walden Pond, he was fond of company, conversation, and frequent visits to his family and friends. Although he had an elite university degree, he preferred to spend hours in earnest conversation with laborers, farmers, and Indians rather than sit in fussy parlors with dandies, empty-headed social climbers and do-gooders.

Thoreau is sometimes thought of as a cantankerous yokel, but he was neither a misanthrope nor a bumpkin. He was, in fact, one of the most compassionate, educated and erudite members of the community of Concord, Massachusetts, where he was born in 1817 and died in 1862. One of the few men in his home town to go to college, he graduated from Harvard University in 1837. It was at Harvard that the young scholar eagerly embraced a world of literature, science and philosophy that was just becoming available to the American reading public. As new translations and texts of world literature flooded from Europe into the harbor of Boston, the faculty and students at Harvard were among the first in America to eagerly untie the parcels and devour Carlyle, Goethe, and Madame de Stael.

But the influx of literature was not limited to European genius. The 1820s and 30s brought with them the first widely available translations of Eastern texts into European languages. Works available for the first time to American literati included the sacred scriptures of India…the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita…as well as the Laws of Menu; Buddhist Sutras; Zoroastrian and Persian texts; and the Chinese classics. Intellectual leaders such as Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Ralph Waldo Emerson, A. Bronson Alcott, Sarah Bradford Ripley…seized on these dramatic works which expanded the narrow Calvinist world of 19th century New England and provided breathtaking glimpses of other philosophies and wisdom traditions heretofore unknown to large masses of western readers. Later academics may question the level of scholarship involved in some of these translations and interpretations, but the overall impact was authentic, immediate and like nothing experienced in the West since Marco Polo wrote of his escapades in Cathay.

In the mid-1830s, Thoreau and the man who would soon become his guide, mentor and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, both were immersed in these “Sacred Books of the East,” as they came to be known. They were for the most part translated into French and Latin, languages in which both men were fluent. (In fact, the Euro-American model of higher education during the first half of the 19th century included rigorous study in French, Latin and Greek, and often German and Italian).

Much has been written about the influence of Hindu scriptures on Thoreau. In fact, he states that he had a copy of the Bhagavad Gita with him during his two-year experiment living by Walden Pond. But less has been reported about the influence of the Chinese wisdom tradition on Thoreau. This is despite his quotations from Chinese sages in the two books he published during his lifetime, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden, and his inclusion of excerpts from The Four Books in the influential Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, in October 1843.

This paper will attempt to show that Thoreau was more deeply influenced by Chinese ideas than previously thought; and in particular, by the ideal of the Superior Person who appears persistently in the pages of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and Chuangzi. First, though, we need to examine how translations of Chinese works entered European and American libraries two hundred years ago, and the impact they made on Boston intellectual society during Thoreau’s tender years.

The translation of Chinese works into European languages

The Chinese works referenced in this paper include the following:

The Four Books:

The Great Learning

The Doctrine of the Mean

The Analects of Confucius

The Mencius

The Five Classics:

Changes (the famous Yi Jing, also romanized as I Ching and Yi King)




Spring and Autumn Annals

The Daoist Classics


The Chuangzi

Not surprisingly, the first translations of Chinese literature and wisdom texts into European languages were made by missionaries. The Jesuits were at the forefront of this endeavor. In 1591, Father Michael Ruggeri, the first Jesuit missionary to China, translated The Great Learning, one of the Four Books of Confucianism, which, according to Lundbaek, was published in Rome in 1593 in Antonio Possevino’s Bibliotheca Selecta. [1] Father Ruggeri’s successor in China, Father Matteo Ricci, translated the entire Four Books into Latin, but this was not published and remained in manuscript form. [2] It was not until nearly 100 years later that a publication of the Confucian classics in Latin was undertaken.

Father Philippe Couplet (1623-1693), who has been called “the man who brought China to Europe,” was the principal editor of what is generally acknowledged as the first complete, published, European translation of Confucian teachings, the Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, published by the Jesuits of the China Mission in Paris in 1687. [3] This work was soon translated into modern European languages. In 1691, an English adaptation of a part of it—The Morals of Confucius—was published, [4] translated from the French. [5] A copy of this work was part of the library of New England Transcendentalist, Amos Bronson Alcott, [6] where it would have been seen and read by young Thoreau, but I believe that earlier, Thoreau would have read this while an undergraduate at Harvard. [7] The book’s tone emphasizes the “infinitely sublime, pure, sensible” qualities of Confucianism “drawn from the purest fountains of Natural Reason,” according to Minford and Lau. [8] These are just the qualities that would appeal to the aesthetics and ascetic spirit of the young intellectual, who was already forming his idea of the Superior Man as given in Pythagoras, Seneca, and other Greek philosophers of antiquity.

Chinese grammars began appearing in the West in the early 1800s. Jean-Pierre Abel- Rémusat (1788-1832), a medical doctor who studied Chinese as a young man, published the scholarly Element de la grammaire chinoise in 1822 in Paris, establishing France as the European center for the study of Chinese in the 19th century. [9] The Rev. Joshua Marshman published a Chinese grammar for the general public in English in 1814. [10]

Translations of literature and what would later be called, “Sacred Books of the East,” listed at the beginning of this section, began appearing a little before the grammars.

Rémusat published one of the classic Four Books—The Doctrine of the Mean—as L’Invariable Milieu (The Tchōng-Yông of Confucius edited by his grandson, Tchhing-Tsé; in pinyin: Zhōngyōng) in 1817; and a Chinese novel, Iu-Kiao-li, “The Two Fair Cousins,” in French in 1826.

M.G. Pauthier, another renowned scholar translating Chinese into French, wrote his Mémoire sur l’Origine et al Propagation de la doctrine du Tao fondee par Lao-tsou in Paris in 1831. He published another of the Four Books: The Great Learning. As La Ta Hio, ou, La Grand Etude, in 1837, and the seminal Daoist text, the Daodejing, Le Tao-te-King, in 1838, both in Paris. [11] His Les Livres sacres de l’Orient (Sacred Books of the East) was published in 1841 and republished the following year.

There is some question as to when the I Ching, a work shared by Confucians, Daoists, Buddhists and unbelievers alike, first became known in the West. In the early 1700s, the sinologist P. Régis revised Father Joseph De Mailla’s word-by-word rendering of the I Ching (Y-King)—one of the Five Classics—and produced the first European translation of that work in Latin. [12] This was not published until 1834 in Stuttgart in a version edited by Julius Mohl, a respected German scholar and translator. [13]

The French scholarly translations had an impact on Continental intellectuals. Hegel commented on Rémusat, [14] Schiller wrote a poem titled, “The Proverbs of Confucius,” and so forth. But not all the translations were aimed at the literati. Some evangelical missionary translators used their interpretive skills to present Chinese literature to the general public, not always in an objective manner.

Rev. David Collie, for example, translated the Four Books into English. Collie was principal of the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca. His work was published by the Mission Press in 1828. Collie states in his preface that he hoped through this translation to lead Chinese studying English “to reflect seriously on some of the fatal errors propagated by their most celebrated sages.” He states that he hopes his edition may “by the divine blessing, prove useful to some of the deluded heathen who read the translation.” The translation abounds with copious, spirited footnotes such as this one to the Hea Lun, Vol. II, page 86:

Pray, what moral renovation could this palpable falsehood effect on the beholders, or upon the reader of this barefaced lie! Does heaven thus deceive men? …Is it in imitation of the sage that the Chinese of the present day distinguish themselves by telling falsehoods? [15]

When in April 1843, Thoreau included Confucian writings in the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, he drew from the translation of Rev. Joshua Marshman, whose “The Works of Confucius” was published in 1809 in Serampore. In quoting from Collie’s translation in October 1843, he was sure to omit the footnotes. [16]

From Europe to the Libraries and Bookshops of Massachusetts

It has been established that Thoreau read or had access to the translations of Rémusat, Pauthier, and others as an undergraduate at Harvard between 1833 and 1837, accessing books from two libraries, the conservative Harvard Library and the more inclusive Harvard Institute Library [17] . He continued to borrow books from Harvard after he graduated, as well as from the libraries of friends such as Alcott and Emerson. Translations came from Paris and London to Boston where they not only found homes in collegiate and private libraries, but also were available at bookshops such as the one at 13 West Street in Boston owned by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Peabody was an educator—in fact, the founder of the first Kindergarten—and translator, including, as we will see later, the seminal Buddhist scripture, the Lotus Sutra. [18] Indeed, European publishers found a ready market for their books in the United States. Even before the Revolutionary War, Britain, for example, was exporting more books to the Colonies than to Europe. [19] At the dawn of the 19th century, one-eighth of all foreign books in the U.S. were French. [20]

While an undergraduate, Thoreau may first have encountered the Chinese wisdom tradition through references in histories and journals. A list of Thoreau’s reading while at Harvard includes “The Phenix,” [21] identified as “a collection of old and rare fragments,” which included the Life of Confucius, The Morals of Confucius, translated from the Chinese by R. F. Prospero Intorcetta and Father Couplet, and a note on the writings of Confucius, taken from Sir Henry Ellis’ Amherst’s Embassy to China. published in New York in 1835. [22] Emerson, who was soon to become Thoreau’s lifelong friend and mentor—though it was not always a harmonious relationship—also relied on information provided in “The Phenix” in his papers. [23] An English adaptation of part of the Intorcetta/Couplet “Morals” was published in 1691, and this is the version that Thoreau encountered in “The Phenix.” Contrary to widespread opinion, including my own (!), it is probable that Thoreau first read Chinese wisdom literature in English, not in French or Latin. Encountering these fresh ideas presented conveniently in his own tongue and perhaps put off by the “churchiness” of the Collie version, Thoreau clearly was inspired in his twenties to read the Confucian classics in translations one generation closer to the original: in the French and Latin versions mentioned earlier. It was after he had read the Couplet, the Collie and the Marshman, all in English, that he was ready for Rémusat, Pauthier and others. It is worth noting, by the way, that Emerson withdrew Marshman’s Works of Confucius from the Boston Athenaeum Library in 1836, kept it out two weeks, and withdrew it again after Thoreau’s time in 1865. [24]

As a Harvard student and recent graduate in the late 1830s and early 1840s, Thoreau continued to read, translate, quote from, and learn from the Chinese classics until his decision to move to Walden Pond in 1845. The most conspicuous display of his enthusiasm and knowledge came during the brief period he edited or contributed to the “Ethnical Scriptures” section of The Dial, the quarterly journal originated by Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and other Transcendentalist luminaries.

Dial M for Mencius

It isn’t difficult to connect the chronology of Thoreau’s reading with the chronology of the events of his life. One of these intersections occurred with his growing involvement in the publication of Emerson’s journal. Thoreau had been a fairly frequent contributor to The Dial from its inception in 1840, and even edited a volume in spring of 1843. That issue contained his selection of two pages of Confucian sayings (Marshman translation). In the October 1843 edition, Thoreau provided ten pages of sayings from the Four Books (the Collie translation). (This was about the same time that Emerson, the man who most influenced him, was reading and referring to the Confucian classics in his papers. This was a far cry from Waldo’s contempt for Chinese literature during the 1820s when he wrote “the theological notions of a Chinese are anomalous” and refers to China as “that booby nation.” [25] )

To put them in context, Thoreau’s selection of Chinese translations for The Dial appeared several years after Thoreau and his brother John took their famous trip on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in late summer 1839 but before he wrote the book memorializing this excursion. In fact, he wrote the book while on his retreat at Walden Pond between 1845 and 1847, some six to eight years after the fact. Throughout this period, Thoreau was reading, translating and absorbing the Chinese classics, which included not only the Four Books and their references to the Dao as well as Confucian morality, but also several Buddhist scriptures. We have alluded to Peabody’s translation (from the French) of the Lotus Sutra. While it may appear that Thoreau was immersing himself exclusively in the Confucian or Daxue tradition, that was not the case. He was learning about each of the Three Treasures: Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism as he pursued the Asian take on truth.

According to Sattelmeyer, Thoreau uses his own translations of Pauthier when he quotes Chinese texts in his major works, including A Week, Excursions, Walden, Reform Papers, his Journals and the first Commonplace Book. [26] Whether Thoreau read the I Ching, Daodejing or Chuangzi has not been established, although Pauthier’s later editions of the sacred books does include material from these sources.

Clearly Thoreau was reading and thinking about Chinese literature acquired from many sources: journals, translations and adaptations in English, translations in Latin and French, material from lending libraries and the collections of his friends, and so forth. What impressed Thoreau in this reading—and kept him engaged in the study of Chinese thought throughout his life—was not the novelty or newness of the Chinese perspective. It wasn’t simply another international literature to enhance his reading list. There was one particular characteristic of Chinese sacred texts that intrigued, even obsessed him, as he encountered it in Indian and classical Greek literature as well. That will be the focus of the balance of this paper.

Be All You Can Be

Self-improvement is not a modern invention of the Well-Being industry. From time immemorial, men and women have asked not only “Why am I here?” but also, “How can I become a better human being?” Today, that impulse often takes the form of spending hours at the gym and eating soy products. But in its earliest iterations, the desire for self development went deeper than physical culture. This impulse variously gave birth to the related, but distinctly unique ideas of the Superman, the Hero, and the Superior Person. Thoreau encountered all of these in his studies at and after Harvard.

There are several ways in which the Superman appears in history. There is the belief, found in the Hindu Upanishads, particularly in Advaita Vedanta, that our innermost being is identical with the Divine. We have only to strip away the veils of illusion to reveal this immortal oversoul.

The Superman appears among the German Transcendentalists in the 19th century, though probably too late to be of any relevance to students of Thoreau. Nietzsche’s poetic vision sees the Superman as an evolutionary destination, an archetype that breaks the mold of how we define humanity. This, of course, was carried to disastrous extremes in the past century in Nazi Germany.

The Hero is a common figure in mythology and history, not necessarily a particularly gifted individual, but one who has courage, either physical courage, such as rushing into a burning house to save the occupants, or intellectual and moral courage, such as those who risked imprisonment or death in their efforts to help enslaved persons escape to freedom. Thoreau would have encountered Heroes in The Iliad, one of the few books that had a cherished place in his cabin at Walden Pond. Certainly, the Heroes of both Greek and East Indian literature, Achilles as well as Arjuna, would have appealed to the young idealist.

But Thoreau was above all else a practical man. In sending him to Harvard, his family admitted that he was indeed the son who was better with his hands, someone for whom building, carving, tinkering and crafting were second-nature. It is this proclivity for the practical, I think, that made the Chinese thinkers so irresistible to Thoreau. He found in the Superior Person of the Four Books an ideal that made sense…common sense. The extreme austerities of the Hindu ascetic, the sometimes mindless derring-do of the battlefield hero ultimately did not shape his world view. In contrast, the Chinese model of the Superior Person was something he—in fact, all people—could aspire to. The Superior Person was connected with the real world: the world of nature and science, of family and community, of order and just law. It challenged people to develop on their own terms, not in the context of the mysterious, the unseen, and the unknowable.

The readers of this paper (and those hearing this presentation in Beijing) are familiar with the characteristics of the Superior Person, but I will touch on them briefly. Remember that for Thoreau, who was brought up in a closed post-Puritan society, this was an unexplored country, a totally new spin on what people could become, disengaged from the trappings of the religious orthodoxy he loathed.

The writer Lin Yutang, whose English-language reflections were popular in the United States some seventy years ago, wrote a book titled, The Importance of Living. The title suggests the focus of Chinese wisdom literature on the art of living, particularly one of the Five Classics, the Liji, known as the Records of Rites. Indeed, the notion of living deliberately, consciously and well would have resonated throughout the Chinese writings and commentaries that Thoreau read from his Harvard years onward. The meaning of Thoreau’s own his life, his own “art of living,” as it were, is mirrored almost to the letter in the characteristics of the Superior Person described in these ancient works.

I think of all the English-language summaries of the characteristics of the Superior Person one of the best comes from a work, The Ethics of Confucius, published in 1915 by an American attorney and actuary whose avocation was the study of ethics in world literature. This work, by Miles Menander Dawson, can be read online at Google Books or at and others sites. [27] Some scholars may argue that Dawson was not a sinologist, but for purposes of understanding Thoreau’s response to Chinese thought, we must remember his impressions were not always formed by reading what we today would consider the most precise renderings of Chinese ideas. Though coming more than fifty years after Thoreau’s formative years, I think Dawson’s interpretations are very close to the understandings gained by the Sage of Walden Pond.

“The central idea of Confucius”, wrote Dawson, “is that every normal human being cherishes the aspiration to become a superior man.” [28]

Consider, then, these characteristics of the Superior Person, as extracted by Dawson, and compare them with the course of personal courage, environmentalism, and dedication to the human community taken by Thoreau throughout his life. Think in particular about his “two years, two months, and two days” at Walden Pond:

Purpose: "The superior man learns in order to attain to the utmost of his principles." (Analects, bk. xix., c. vii.)

Poise: "The superior man in his thought does not go out of his place." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxviii.)

Self-sufficiency: "What the superior man seeks, is in himself; what the ordinary man seeks, is in others." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xx.)

Earnestness: "The superior man in everything puts forth his utmost endeavours." (Great Learning, ii., 4.)

Thoroughness: "The superior man bends his attention to what is radical. That being established, all practical courses naturally grow up." (Analects, bk. i., c. ii., v. 2.)

Sincerity: "The superior man must make his thoughts sincere." (Great Learning, vi., 4.) " Is it not his absolute sincerity which distinguishes a superior man?" (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xiii., 4.)

Truthfulness: "What the superior man requires is that in what he says there may be nothing inaccurate." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. iii., v. 7.)

Purity of thought and action: "The superior man must be watchful over himself when alone." (Great Learning, vi., 2.)

Love of truth: "The object of the superior man is truth." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxi.) "The superior man is anxious lest he should not get truth; he is not anxious lest poverty come upon him." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxi.)

Mental hospitality: "The superior man is catholic and not partisan; the ordinary man is partisan and not catholic." (Analects, bk. ii., c. xiv.) " The superior man in the world does not set his mind either for anything or against anything; what is right, he will follow." (Analects, bk. iv., c. x.)

Rectitude: "The superior man thinks of virtue; the ordinary man thinks of comfort." (Analects, bk. iv., c. xi.) " The mind of the superior man is conversant with righteousness; the mind of the ordinary man is conversant with gain." (Analects, bk. iv., c. xxi.) " The superior man in all things considers righteousness essential." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xvii.)

Prudence: "The superior man wishes to be slow in his words and earnest in his conduct." (Analects, bk. iv., c. xxiv.)

Composure: "The superior man is satisfied and composed; the ordinary man is always full of distress." (Analects, bk. vii., c. xxxvi.) "The superior man may indeed have to endure want; but the ordinary man, when he is in want, gives way to unbridled license." (Analects, bk. xv., c. i., v. 3.)

Fearlessness: "The superior man has neither anxiety nor fear." (Analects, bk. xii., c. iv., v. i.) "When internal examination discovers nothing wrong, what is there to be anxious about, what is there to fear?" (Analects, bk. xi., c. iv., v. 3.) " They sought to act virtuously and they did so; and what was there for them to repine about?" (Analects, bk. vii., c. xiv., v. 2.)

Ease and dignity: "The superior man has dignified ease without pride; the ordinary man has pride without dignified ease." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xxvi.) "The superior man is dignified and does not wrangle." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxi.)

Firmness: "Refusing to surrender their wills or to submit to any taint to their persons." Analects, bk. xviii., c. viii., v. 2.) "The superior man is correctly firm and not merely firm." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxvi.) "Looked at from a distance, he appears stern; when approached, he is mild; when he is heard to speak, his language is firm and decided." (Analects, bk. xix., c. ix.)

Lowliness: "The superior man is affable but not adulatory; the ordinary man is adulatory but not affable." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xxiii.)

Avoidance of sycophancy: "I have heard that the superior man helps the distressed, but he does not add to the wealth of the rich." (Analects, bk. vi., c. iii., v. 2.)

Growth: "The progress of the superior man is upward, the progress of the ordinary man is downward." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxiv.) "The superior man is distressed by his want of ability; he is not distressed by men's not knowing him." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xviii.)

Capacity: "The superior man cannot be known in little matters but may be entrusted with great concerns." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxiii.)

Openness: "The faults of the superior man are like the sun and moon. He has his faults and all men see them. He changes again and all men low look up to him." (Analects, bk. xix., c. xxi.)

Benevolence: "The superior man seeks to develop the admirable qualities of men and does not seek to develop their evil qualities. The ordinary man does the opposite of this." (Analects, bk. xii., c. xvi.)

Broadmindedness: "The superior man honours talent and virtue and bears with all. He praises the good and pities the incompetent." (Analects, bk. xix., c. iii.) "The superior man does not promote a man on account of his words, nor does he put aside good words on account of the man." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxii.)

Charity: "To be able to judge others by what is in ourselves, this may be called the art of virtue." (Analects, bk. vi., c. xxviii., v. 3.)

Moderation: "The superior man conforms with the path of the mean." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xi., vi. 3.)

The Golden Rule: "When Gm (sic) cultivates to the utmost the capabilities of his nature and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path. What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xiii., v. 3.)

Reserve power: "That wherein the superior man cannot be equalled is simply this, his work which other men cannot see." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xxxiii., v. 2.) [29]

It may surprise an international audience to learn that Thoreau is not universally esteemed in the United States, and certainly was not well thought of by the majority of readers in the years immediately following his death in 1862. Some of the criticisms leveled at Thoreau were that he:

held an impossibly high standard for himself and for everyone around him;

scorned organized religion, the moral foundation of New England society;

was a “cold fish” who didn’t have emotional connections with people close to him;

wasted his considerable gifts on insignificant activities; Emerson dismissively referred to him as “the captain of the huckleberry party;” [30]

lived too narrow a life and did not broaden his horizons through more extensive travel and conversation with other high minds. For example, the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson lambasted Thoreau for this and other perceived failings in Cornhill Magazine in 1880. [31]

seemed to care more about animals, rocks, and trees (i.e., the environment) than about other people.

In truth, some of this criticism is deserved. Thoreau did detach to a certain extent from society and focus on a course of action he set for himself. But in view of his reading and study from an early age, these characteristics can be seen as evidence of passion for deliberate living and self-improvement based on the time-tested teachings of Confucius, Mencius, and other Chinese teachers.

What may have appeared to his critics as aloofness, was actually self-scrutiny, what the Daoists call cultivation of the self in order to become a better person and a more meaningful part of the community of life. His so-called emotional coolness was the result of putting into practice the doctrine of the mean: balance in all things. The love of the natural world, as we now see with 150 years of hindsight, was in fact a call for preservation and responsibility at a time when Nature was viewed as an expendable resource. Attacks on his lack of social responsibility were patently ill-placed: Thoreau was a leader in anti-slavery activities, risking his own safety to help escaped slaves to freedom, and conspicuously speaking out against injustice. He literally wrote the book on responsible civil disobedience.

Through all this, Thoreau followed the Chinese teachers as though they mattered. And they do. They teach us to be tolerant, to be unstinting in development of our potential, to be caring and responsible members of our genetic families, but also the family of humanity, the family of the natural world, for rocks and trees too are our sisters and brothers, as we Westerners learned many years earlier from St. Francis.

Indeed, Thoreau’s incalculable contributions to the development and growth of the environmental movement worldwide are deeply rooted in the Chinese love of nature, especially human nature, and the sage counsel to develop that nature to its fullest capacity.

How then, do we reconcile this revelation with Thoreau’s frequent predictions that the future of civilization could be found in the West? “Look westward,” he often said. “Eastward I go only by force, Westward I go free. I must walk towards Oregon and not towards Europe.” [32] I think when he looked to the West, he was looking beyond the Pacific coast, to China. It was there, in the notion of the Superior Person, living in harmony with the natural world, that the future of individuals and civilizations lay. It is there that the foundation of the ecology of tomorrow may be found: in self-development, in respect for others, and in the embrace of the natural world. Thoreau himself became the sage he studied, a wise man engaged passionately and productively in the most pressing issues of his time. He is the Sage Engaged, a model for all of us as we prepare for global challenges of unimaginable proportions. Perhaps it is time for each of us to brush the dust from those ancient Four Books and gird ourselves for the battle of our lives.


My research would have been impossible without the generous, unstinting support of the staffs of several libraries and library systems. I am deeply indebted to the following:

Burlington County Public Library System, Mount Holly, N.J.

Harvard University: the Harvard-Andover Theological Library, the Pusey Library, Widener Library and Houghton Library.

Princeton University Library and staff of the John Foster Dulles Reading Room; and the East Asian Library and Gest Collection.

The Speer and Luce Libraries of the Princeton Theological Seminary

I also am greatly appreciative of the support and services I received from the following organizations while researching a paper in 2007 on a similar topic:

The Thoreau Institute

The Concord Free Public Library

Quotations from the Confucian Analects that would have appealed to Thoreau :

“When you’re ignored by the world like this, and yet bear no resentment, isn’t that great nobility?” (p. 3)

“Have I stood by my words in dealing with friends? Have I practiced all that I’ve been taught?” (p. 4)

“The noble-minded are content without a full belly or the comforts of home.”

(p. 6)

“The noble-minded are all encompassing, not stuck in doctrines; Little people are stuck in doctrines.” (p. 14)

“Aspiring to the Way, but ashamed of bad clothes and bad food: such a person knows nothing worth discussing!” (p. 31)

“Be loyal to the principles of your heart.” (p. 36)

“He was diligent in his love of learning, and not ashamed to seek answers from those beneath him.” (p. 47)

“My life has been my prayer.” (p. 76)

“If you don’t understand words, you’ll never understand people.” (p. 232)

The Analects, Confucius tr. David Hinton, Counterpoint Books, Washington D.C., 1998


[1] See Knud Lundbaek, “The Image of Neo-Confucianism in Confucius Sinarum Philosophus,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1983), pp. 19-30 , University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, by John Minford, Joseph S. M. Lau, Columbia University Press, 2000, page xliv

[3] Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions by Gerald H. Anderson, Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999

[4] Minford and Lau, ibid.

[5] According to the Web site of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America it was “ translated from La Morale de Confucius, a compilation by J. de la Brune published in Amsterdam in 1688. De la Brune’s translation in turn was adapted from the Latin translation of Confucius’s Ta Hsueh, Chung Yung, and the Lun Yu by Intorcetta, Couplet, Hertritch and Rougemont published in Paris in 1687.” The Confucian texts mentioned are three of the Four Books.

[6] Stack of the Artist of Kouroo Project,

[7] Cameron, Kenneth Walker, Transcendental Apprenticeship: notes on young Henry Thoreau’s reading: a contexture with a researcher’s index, Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1976. This rather peculiar volume, with its self-published patina, nonetheless does include valuable data about Thoreau’s collegiate reading and student writing.

[8] Minford and Lau, ibid.

[9] Joseph Needham, Christoph Harbsmeier, Kenneth Robinson, Science & Civilization in China , Vol. VII: I , Language and Logic, Cambridge University Press, 1998, ISBN 052157143X, 9780521571432

[10] This can be viewed on Google e-books.

[11] The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 5, London, 1839.

[12] James Legge, tr., Sacred Books of the East, vol. 16 [1899]

[13] A copy of this two-volume edition resides in the Andover-Harvard Theological Seminary Library on the Harvard University campus.

[14] Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Lectures of 1827, One-Volume Edition

by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; translated by Peter C. Hodgson, R. F. Brown; Contributor Peter C. Hodgson; Published by Oxford University Press, 2006

[15] The Chinese Classical Work commonly called the Four Books (1828) translated and illustrated with notes, by the Late Rev. David Collie; a facsimile reproduction with an introduction by William Bysshe Stein, Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, Gainesville, Florida, 1970.

[16] Emerson was also reading Collie. The following citations are from The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson edited by Ralph Leslie Rusk and Eleanor Marguerite Tilton, Columbia University Press, 1939: Journals and Miscellaneous Notes, 8:146 et passim, 9:7, 32-34, and 403. Also mentioned in a letter June 7, 1843 , 3:179.

[17] Cameron, Thoreau Discovers Emerson: A College Reading Record, New York Public Library, 1953. Cameron states that the Harvard Institute Library eventually was absorbed into the Hasty Pudding Club, and from there, the collection found its way into the Harvard Library.

[18] There is still some disagreement as to whether Peabody or Thoreau translated the Lotus Sutra. While earlier scholars such as G. W. Cooke. An Historical and Biographical Introduction to the Dial ( Cleveland 1902) and Joel Myerson, Studies in Bibliography, 1973, affirmed that Thoreau was the translator, the more contemporary view is that Peabody was the probable author. See See also Essential Buddhism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs and Practices by Jack Maguire and Jack Hosho Maguire, Simon and Schuster, 2001, p. 162; and Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Adam Frank, Duke University Press, 2003, p. 161

[19] Sher, Richard B., The Enlightenment & the Book: Scottish Authors & Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain , Ireland , & America , University of Chicago Press, 2006, p. 515.

[20] Fay, Bernard (CITATION TO COME)

[21] Sattelmeyer, Robert, Thoreau's Reading: A Study in Intellectual History With Bibliographical Catalogue
1988 Princeton University Press, Princeton , N.J.

[22] Cameron, Kenneth Walker, Transcendental Apprenticeship, ibid. The Phenix can be viewed in full at Google e-books.

[23] The Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Vol. 1 edited by Susan Sutton Smith and Ralph H. Orth; University of Missouri Press , 1990, pp 385 and 394

[24] Cameron, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Reading: a guide for source-hunters and scholars…, New York: Haskell House, 1966, reprint of the 1941 edition.

[25] Emerson’s Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, Vol. II, edited by William H. Gilman, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-82, pp. 224 and 378 respectively. By 1838, Emerson’s opinion of the Chinese wisdom tradition had undergone a sea change. The Journals show in that year, he included Confucius among the giants of his “Trismegisti,” the highest oracles in civilization.

[26] Sattelmeyer, ibid., p. 248.

[27] See also The Online Library of Liberty at Search for “Miles Menander Dawson” and download the complete text. The Liberty Fund appears to be affiliated with a political agenda, but the books offered freely on its site are original and untouched by the group’s political bias.

[28] Dawson, Miles Menander, The Ethics of Confucius, Chapter I,

[29] Dawson, ibid. This entire section of characteristics is taken verbatim from Dawson’s text.

[30] Perry, Bliss, ed., The Heart of Emerson's Journals , Houghton Mifflin, 1926, p. 256; June, 1851: “Thoreau wants a little ambition in his mixture. Fault of this, instead of being the head of American engineers, he is captain of [the] huckleberry party.”


[32] Thoreau, Walking, page 10.

Posted on Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 06:16PM by Registered CommenterLinda Brown Holt | CommentsPost a Comment | References20 References