Higher Laws

Dear Henry,

I’m writing to share my thanks for your gift of Walden. I’m reading it along with the congregation I serve, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, and with every chapter, every time, something wonderful brings me home to my Unitarian Universalist spiritual roots. Penetrating critique and insight. Continued relevance, even more than 150 years after you published the thing. Passages that make me howl with laughter. Passages of such beauty that I can’t help but weep.

Now we are on to Chapter 11, which you entitle “Higher Laws.” At one point, close to the end, you write about a man named John Farmer, but he really represents everywoman and everyman. “John Farmer,” you say, “sat at his door one September evening, after a hard day’s work, his mind still running on his labor more or less. Having bathed, he sat down to recreate his intellectual man. It was a rather cool evening, and some of his neighbors were apprehending a frost. He had not attended to the train of his thoughts long when he heard some one playing on a flute, and that sound harmonized with his mood. Still he thought of his work…. But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere … and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him. They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him — Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you?”

That’s what we read in Walden. A beautiful vision of essentials, conveyed, if not through notes of a flute, then through words of a book like your book, or through something else. A vision elevating us, opening us up to a voice of wisdom, which you and your Transcendentalist colleagues liked to call “genius.”

And so you say, “No man ever followed his genius till it misled him.” For genius, as you define the term, can’t possibly mislead. On this, Transcendentalism as a spiritual movement and a reform movement took its stand and takes it now. Genius is a capacity to glimpse, in one total vision, the right ordering of the whole of society which, in turn, leads to the maximum benefit of each individual. Genius, in other words, is not just mere idiosyncrasy, or eccentricity, which is how some people today might understand the term. Genius is, rather, a glimpse into order that is universal. Genius is like a compass which points towards how things ought to be—the ways and the rules—that will bring the world to fulfillment.

It’s something that Antoine de Saint Exupery illustrates in his book, The Little Prince, when he has the book’s hero speak with a great king:

“Sire [said the Little Prince]–over what do you rule?”

“Over everything,” said the king, with magnificent simplicity.

“Over everything?”

The king made a gesture, which took in his planet, the other planets, and all the stars.

“Over all that?” asked the little prince.

“Over all that,” the king answered.

For his rule was not only absolute: it was also universal.

“And the stars obey you?”

“Certainly they do,” the king said. “They obey instantly. I do not permit insubordination.”

“I should like to see a sunset . . . Do me that kindness . . . Order the sun to set . . .”

“If I ordered a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragic drama, or to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not carry out the order that he had received, which one of us would be in the wrong?” the king demanded. “The general, or myself?”

“You,” said the little prince firmly.

“Exactly. One must require from each one the duty which each one can perform,” the king went on. “Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves into the sea, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable.”

That’s the passage from The Little Prince, and Henry, you were acting out of that magnificently simple King-place within you when, one afternoon, near the end of your first summer at Walden, you went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, and the village taxman informed you that you had not yet paid your taxes, and you said good. You spoke out of that deep genius vision place within, which saw American society at the time full of rules essentially requiring an entire category of citizens to go throw themselves into the sea of slavery. The system was not reasonable. So you said no. You did not “recognize the authority of the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house.” Your civil disobedience took its stand on your King-like genius, which enabled you to envision the kind of society that WOULD be worthy of your obedience, because it IS reasonable.

Would you pay the taxman today, Henry? Rules and laws requiring entire classes of people to throw themselves into the sea are still in place. People who can’t get quality, affordable healthcare. People who love each other but aren’t allowed the dignity of marriage. Always, always, the poor. And on and on. Just not reasonable. Just not right. Would you pay the taxman today?

For you, it is all a question of “life in conformity to higher principles.” And that’s the larger issue that you raise in our reading for today. You raise it with urgency. Your Transcendentalism (which us our Transcendentalism) is no easy spirituality. It’s not just about big moments of conscientious objection, as when you refused to pay your taxes. “Our whole life is startlingly moral,” you say. “There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice.” Everything we do—even acts which are the most private and seemingly mundane—either amplify the music of genius within us, or muffle it, block it. There’s no neutrality, no Switzerland of the spirit. Everything that John Farmer does counts.

And this is why—so it seems to me—you spend so much time in Chapter 11 talking about food. Diet. “Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open,” you say, and how and what we eat can help to keep the channel open, or to close it. A very different motivation than the usual, than what is normally behind the vast array of diet possibilities currently out there, such as Atkins or South Beach, the Zone or the F-Plan, the Scarsdale Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Astronaut’s Diet, the Sleeping Beauty Diet, the Three-Week Trance Diet, or the More of Jesus, Less of Me diet. I’m serious. I could go on and on.

One food-related issue you bring up has to do with obesity. Drawing on an observation from science, you say, “It is a significant fact, stated by entomologists, that ‘some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with organs of feeding, make no use of them’; and they lay it down as ‘a general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less than in that of larvae. The voracious caterpillar when transformed into a butterfly … and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly’ content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid.” You say all this, and then here is your concluding insight: “The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.” Henry, just tell me what you really think about the problem of obesity….

But did you really have a lot of “vast abdomens” in your day? We sure do now. Two-thirds of Americans, more than 190 million of us, are overweight or obese, making this, in the estimate of the Obesity Society, “the most fatal, chronic, relapsing disorder of the 21st century. Obesity is a leading cause of United States mortality, morbidity, disability, healthcare utilization and healthcare costs. It is likely that the increase in obesity will strain our healthcare system with millions of additional cases of diabetes, heart disease and disability.”

It’s a mess. As Yale University scholar Kelly Brownell puts it, “If you go to McDonald’s today, you can buy a quarter-pounder with cheese meal—that means the large drink and the large french fries—for less than it costs to buy a salad and a bottle of water.” And then he says, “There’s something wrong with that picture.” Over $30 billion dollars spent each year on food advertising, and too much of it is making our children gross feeders, too much of it makes eye-catching claims about products being healthy when they are anything but. Laws allowing this tantamount to demanding that entire classes of people throw themselves into the sea…. I know personal responsibility is, of course, a key factor in making things better, but to really win the battle against obesity, completely, we’ve got to change the laws and make them reasonable. Come together in our schools and in our neighborhoods. Fashion the changes from a genius-oriented, King-oriented perspective. If increasing taxes on cigarettes led to a drastic drop in smoking, then what might just a penny per ounce tax on sugared beverages do?

A tax law, which even you, Henry, would approve of and would, in fact, contend has deep spiritual implications. “Every man,” you say, “is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own…. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.” Once again, the urgency theme. No act is too small to impact eternity.

It’s prophetic, Henry: your comment about “gross feeders” and “vast abdomens.” And so are your comments about eating meat. You say, “there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh…. Having been my own butcher and scullion and cook, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience.” Again you say, “The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth.” Because of my year-long happiness pledge to abstain from meat, I’m starting to understand this better and better.

All I know is that, 150 years later, your words still sing. The John Farmer in me gets it. But John Farmer today is bringing different experiences than your readers from yesteryear. John Farmer today often brings a lack of awareness of this uncleanness to which you refer. Or, he’s bringing a hyperawareness of it, a hypersensitivity.

Fact is, many people today have no idea what it’s like to be one’s own butcher and scullion and cook and consumer. We just grow up and through a consumption pattern that has been set up for us by culture and by family. We take it for granted. It’s just who we are. We go to the one-stop grocery store, look into the freezer, grab what’s lying there (shrink-wrapped or in a box), and there is no thought regarding where it comes from and what the journey there might have looked like. Shopping for price tag and taste only.

And then there’s the people who bring something completely opposite: hyperawareness and hypersensitivity. They’ve researched the ins and outs of the “industrial agriculture system”—defined in part by mechanical methods of planting and harvesting; animal agriculture on a mass scale; human manipulation of natural processes through a variety of means like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; or growth hormones for livestock; or genetic engineering. This is industrial agriculture, and it has led, undeniably, to a radical transformation in food production, resulting in levels of plenty around the world that have simply been unknown in all previous generations of human existence. Starvation has always been a major threat for the human race—except now. Thanks to industrial agriculture.

And yet when these people look more deeply into it—this source of human plenty, this ultimate reason for why we can one-stop shop—what they discover is also a vast ugliness. An uncleanness that you, Henry, could never have even dreamed. All the unintended consequences of the system, including pollution, economic injustice, and a decrease in biodiversity. All the hidden costs, all the environmental side-effects. Those shrink wrapped chicken breasts we buy at the grocery store, for example: how the living beings they came from were “confined in windowless sheds filthy with their own excrement; [how] their beaks were seared off to prevent them from pecking their neighbors due to the stress of overcrowding; [how] breeding and hormones had sped up their growth so that the weight of their bodies deformed their legs and arrested their hearts; [how] they were fed a constant stream of antibiotics to stave off disease (meanwhile creating antibiotic-resistant strains of disease with the potential to plague the rest of creation); and [how] their feed might legally include ground-up cattle parts, as well as the corn from those vast fields treated with enormous quantities of pesticides and herbicides” (from Amy Hassinger’s “Eating Ethically” in the Spring 2007 edition of the UU World). This is just one instance of the vast ugliness that comes at a person when they dare to look deeper into the industrial agriculture system.

As for what all this hyperawareness and hypersensitivity can lead to: one form it takes is to hear about what happens to chickens and other animals and to hear about all the flaws and downsides of industrial agriculture and simply to shut off. To deny. The shock of it all so overwhelming that we turn a blind eye. This, or the other extreme: to hate with pure hate the agricultural system that has blessed humanity; to demand that the system change instantly and immediately, even if the changes are not sustainable in the least; to see humanity as one big blight upon the earth and for oneself to feel ashamed for even existing—to feel cursed by an original sin—to believe that one has no right to take a place in an interdependent web and a circle of life that, in truth, love us and make room for us and only want us to leave a lighter footprint…..

What I’m saying, Henry, is that both forms of hyperawareness and hypersensitivity are obstacles to living in the truth. We cannot any longer turn a blind eye to the ugliness of industrial agriculture; and yet reactive hate towards the system and towards ourselves is no answer either. Perhaps you are in agreement with me, for you say, “Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way — as any one who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn — and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet. Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”

I appreciate this. It is wrong for the laws of our land to require animals to throw themselves into the sea. The genius vision in you sees that, and I see it. But I and we also know that it is a journey. It is a destiny we must drive towards, to become a better human race.

And it will not be without its complexities. One comes up in the very opening of the chapter, where you say this: “As I came home through the woods with my string of fish, trailing my pole, it being now quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented.” All I can say is, Whoa! Way to make a point! Your point being, I think, that there is within each of us the animal, representing energies which become creatively useable by us only when tamed and transformed.  Healing the division within ourselves is necessary to healing divisions without.

And then there is this complexity, which, truth be told, I’m really relieved to know about. You yourself were not a strict vegetarian. You ate meat rarely, it is true; but there were times when practicality or convention left you with few or no options. Said your friend Moncure Conway, “Thoreau never attempted to make any general principle on the subject [of vegetarianism], and later in life ate meat in order not to cause inconvenience to the family.”

You see, I’m writing this letter to you fully aware that I’ve not been perfect in my pledge to eat a meatless diet this year. Oh, I’ve given up my “I [heart] bacon” T-shirt, and I’m no longer the rabid meat-eater that I was. But once and a while, there have been times when practicality made things difficult, or the time of year. Like Thanksgiving with friends. Or the Superbowl. Henry, I know: “There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice.” Yet in the eye of your genius, as in mine, we know that perfectionism is an obstacle to growth. We are tempered by reality. We are tempered by humility. Wee must not allow our big genius visions get in the way of our living with each other. Even Transcendentalists must remember that we need not think alike to love alike.

And so may our Transcendentalism never become a grim affair of finger-pointing and guilt-mongering, even as it urges us forward. Let us sing our spirituality. Let it be the same kind of music to us as it was to John Farmer. Lovely notes from the flute, waking us up from our slumber, gently raising us above the street, above the village, above the state in which we live, so we can see it all from a mountain-top perspective. A voice in the music, saying to us: “Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you?”

Henry, I love you—thank you for being a spiritual grandparent to us all—