Brain Pickings

Thoreau on Why Not to Quote Thoreau

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“It would be a truer discipline for the writer to … clear a new field instead of manuring the old.”

As a lover of history’s great diaries, I find myself returning regularly to the journals of Henry David Thoreau, which he began writing in October of 1837 upon Emerson’s suggestion and which he maintained religiously for years, often writing ten pages on a given day. Though a large portion of his notebooks have been lost, the heart of the beloved transcendentalist’s private writings is preserved in the largest one-volume edition yet published, The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library).

Thoreau is also one of modern history’s most oft-quoted minds, which makes this entry from December 25, 1851, admonishing against the perils of quoting others’ ideas particularly ironic, doubly so because his own journal began as a notebook where he would frequently jot down quotations from other thinkers amidst his own mini-essays and poetry — in other words, a kind of Tumblr long before Tumblr, another case of vintage versions of modern social media. Here, Thoreau admonishes against the cult of the quote as a vehicle for self-expression, and argues instead for finding one’s own voice:

It would be a truer discipline for the writer to take the least film of thought that floats in the twilight sky of his mind for his theme, about which he has scarcely one idea (that would be teaching his ideas how to shoot), faintest intimations, shadowiest subjects, make a lecture on this, by assiduity and attention get perchance two views of the same, increase a little the stock of knowledge, clear a new field instead of manuring the old; instead of making a lecture out of such obvious truths, hackneyed to the minds of all thinkers. We seek too soon to ally the perceptions of the mind to the experience of the hand, to prove our gossamer truths practical, to show their connection with our every-day life (better show their distance from our every-day life), to relate them to the cider-mill and the banking institution. Ah, give me pure mind, pure thought! Let me not be in haste to detect the universal law; let me see more clearly a particular instance of it! Much finer themes I aspire to, which will yield no satisfaction to the vulgar mind, not one sentence for them. Perchance it may convince such that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in their philosophy. Dissolve one nebula, and so destroy the nebular system and hypothesis. Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed. By perseverance you get two views of the same rare truth.

[…]

That is your text. Do not speak for other men; speak for yourself. They show you as in a vision the kingdoms of the world, and of all the worlds, but you prefer to look in upon a puppet-show. Though you should only speak to one kindred mind in all time, though you should not speak to one, but only utter aloud, that you may the more completely realize and live in the idea which contains the reason of your life, that you may build yourself up to the height of your conceptions. . . .

Instead of echoing other voices, Thoreau urges, one should seek the truth of one’s own voice in the divine, in “thoughts that transcend life and death”:

What though mortal ears are not fitted to hear absolute truth! Thoughts that blot out the earth are best conceived in the night, when darkness has already blotted it out from sight.

We look upward for inspiration.

One can only wonder how personally Leo Tolstoy might have taken this, given he frequently quoted Thoreau in his famous Calendar of Wisdom.

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