If Only the Tea Party Crowd Knew Where Their Ideas Came from
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In the mid-19th century Henry David Thoreau drew that line of thinking out to its logical conclusion in his essay " Civil Disobedience":
I heartily accept the motto, -- "That government is best which governs least" -- and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, -- "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
How would men (and women, to be sure) get prepared for such anarchy, which was really Thoreau's ideal? He offered no simple rule, because there was none, in his view: "I would have each one be very careful and find out his own way." he wrote in Walden. "Explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s own being."
Within that private sea of our own being, though, Thoreau was sure that every one of us could find—each in our own way —the eternal, spiritual "solid bottom," of the universe. "Next to us the grandest laws ... all the laws of Nature ... are continually being executed." We can know those laws directly and be guided by them, as long as we "live deep and suck all the marrow out of life." Then we will find government superfluous.
Thoreau concluded "Civil Disobedience" by "imagining a State" that would let a few people
live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
It would be a state of perfect Transcendentalist anarchy, where everyone would fulfill all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men not because they were following the government's laws but because they were letting nature take its course within them, living deep and sucking all the marrow out of life.
Today's right-wing extremists would probably run from Thoreau's view of life even faster than from Jefferson's. But there is no denying that their obsession with shrinking government stands in a long, distinguished line of American tradition where these two luminaries shine so bright.
Those same right-wingers would probably run fastest of all from another luminary, Walt Whitman, who was surely marching to his own drummer when he rhapsodized about his own transcendental moments: "From this hour, freedom! From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines." Where the Tea Party would erect fences stronger and higher, Whitman would have every fence torn down.
And in his imagined freedom, shorn of all defences, Whitman found "the joy of that vast elemental sympathy which only the human soul is capable of generating and emitting in steady and limitless floods." Even Jefferson could not have expressed the Enlightenment faith in benevolent human nature more eloquently.
Whitman gave classic voice to the link between the anarchic Transcendentalists and the Jeffersonians: Live free, follow your natural promptings, and you will spontaneously act upon the elemental sympathy for all that wells up from within you.
So it seems a fitting coincidence that I first heard this tradition voiced by friends at "Leaves of Grass," my local countercultural bookstore, back in the late 1960s. They summed it up by asking, in Whitman's words: "What do you need, Camerado? Do you think it is love?", and answering, in the Beatles' words, "All you need is love."