Thoreau and the Politics of Immanence


This essay is a reading of Henry David Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts.”  It argues that Thoreau’s opposition to slavery is based on his critique of transcendence, the pattern of thought that places meaning, value, or truth at some type of remove.  For Thoreau, truth emerges immanently through a practice of disciplined attention to experience and nature.  This practice has relevance beyond the realms of nature mysticism and environmental conservation (areas where Thoreau garners much attention).  Instead, this essay argues that Thoreau’s critique of transcendence bears relevance to contemporary America due to the transcendent structure of three fundamental parts of this culture:  capitalism, imperialism, and Christianity.



It has been a dream of much philosophy, at least since Plato, to produce a new, better world, one more in accordance with truth and, perhaps, justice.  And it is in times perceived by thoughtful people as especially troubled that this dream acquires such an intensity that it appears on the verge of becoming a reality, and troubled reality itself feels like a nightmare.  Many of us, people who find ourselves thinking about the world, experience the current times this way.  In short, the ascendance in American culture of conservative political thought, buttressed by conservative religious thought, has become starkly clear.[1]  And the sheer effectiveness of this marriage between a politics that clings to defense, suspicion, and security and religious views that cling to dogma, certainty, and self-righteousness has created an environment of despair for those of us who long for a politics based on an ethics invested in the progressive reform of a fallible but necessary government.  The question now becomes:  What kind of philosophical thinking, especially a thinking that takes religion seriously, might support  this type of political longing?

A typical urge in this situation, as the very word progressive suggests, is to dream a hero into the future, a new candidate or leader (or even a thinker), one with not only the right thoughts but also with the power to directly implement those thoughts.  But this urge, I suggest, is precisely the problem.  Establishing a fulfilled future as the promise of value and imagining thought as having a controlled and direct effect within the world is a pattern of thinking all too similar to the conservative religious mindset progressives seek to combat:  salvation lies in the future, if only we believe the right things.  Call this, if you will, transcendence—a pattern of thought in which value is placed in an imagined remove, like the future or another world.  For the evangelical Christianity that has  dominated our current politics that remove is an afterlife where god rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  For consumer capitalism it is a future where one can take satisfaction and gain security from the profits of one’s investments.  For the progressive reformer it is a utopian state in which the selfish errors of humankind are overcome by the human capacity to think critically about those errors, that is to say, rationality.  Transcendence works, gives power to, evangelical Christianity and consumer capitalism because the results of these two phenomena cannot be disputed.  There is no way to demonstrate the falsity of  the claim that god will gather the righteous into a holy, post-mortem existence, and such a thought proves to be consoling for many troubled by life.  And the fruits of capitalism are readily available to anyone with the means and intention to invest; profits are collected all the time.  For the progressive reformer, however, transcendence impedes success, because success never completely happens.  With each correction within society, there is always more to do, some condition left untreated, and down the line a specific correction itself might need to be rethought and reformed.  Thus, progressive reform never comes to fulfillment.  It always disappoints, and such disappointment can easily transform itself into a cynicism that negates the urge to reform all together.  So in order to avoid such debilitating  cynicism, transcendence must be confronted in acts of thought. 


The pervasiveness of transcendence, however, indicates that it is not simply a pattern of thought, one that can be willfully chosen or not chosen, like a garment that can be put on and taken off with ease.  Though transcendence can be characterized as the longing for a fulfilled future or the desire to be in a better, more ultimate place, it is more.  Modern consciousness is structured transcendently.  When the world appears to us as a collection of discrete objects with names and descriptions that serve as cognitive handles for control, we have already moved beyond it, using what we know for our needs and waiting for a time and place when those needs will be no more.  A static object standing before me, is already a transcended object emptied of its own value by the urge toward comprehension and the consequent (if only potential) ability to control it.[2]  So within modernity (however it be dated or defined) transcendence as a pattern of thought or mode of existence is, more or less, the given, because the tools of modernity (e.g. technology, democracy, revolution) transcend the immanent existence of things and make of them objects that find their places in the multitude of human schemata.  Hence, this mode of attention gives more people more power to control more life—not always a bad thing.  But neither is it inevitable, natural, or essential, and one of the more noble things philosophy can do is to confront the pattern of transcendence in ways that expose the immanent value masked by neurotic consciousness.  This exposure (or attention) is not the purely private affair it may seem; because it cuts against such a pervasive fold in the fabric of modern consciousness, it should be considered a political practice.


To get a feel for how philosophy can criticize transcendence and articulate an alternative I want to consider the topic of slavery as thought by Henry David Thoreau.

But first, it should be observed that slavery could be called the most extreme, if not ultimate, form of transcendence.  This might sound perverse or downright offensive, because transcendence is most often associated with the goodness of religion.  The transcendent sacred, that which is not of the world but is responsible for the world, saves and justifies us in one manner or another (if we are believers).  Even without a metaphysical or traditionally religious component, ultimate goodness is often conceived in terms of vertical extension.  What is good is beyond what we normally do or experience.  But in the quest for goodness, salvation, or the sacred, what gets stepped on and climbed over in the reach for the heights?  Sometimes, of course, it is other people. After all, humans are the perfect tools.  With our opposable thumbs, upright posture, stereoscopic vision, and ability to complete complex tasks, we are more capable and efficient than most devices we create.  Using what gets called natural resources as a means for survival and prosperity is something so common and necessary that it hardly stimulates thought.  But when other humans become natural resources (or are deemed inhuman so as to be viewed as such), a line has been crossed and thought demands an inquiry.  Such inquiry, however, does not always go very far, because slavery can be dismissed as something that we have (painfully) overcome and no longer a source of moral perplexity:  Of course, slavery was an evil perpetrated by evil and ignorant people.[3]  But if the pattern of slavery matches the way value typically gets rendered (as a form of transcendence), then we are not yet done with this moral monstrosity.


In fact, one could say that slavery exists even when it doesn’t exist; that is, slavery does not always appear clearly before the eyes but can take subtle shapes that frustrate all efforts toward justice.  This is Thoreau’s insight in his essay “Slavery in Massachusetts.”  Read at an anti-slavery meeting in 1854, the essay, of course, expresses Thoreau’s thoughts in a time when actual human slavery exists in the United States.  But the slavery that structures the plantation economies of the Southern states is not the primary target of his criticism, as the essay’s ironic title should indicate.  Thoreau wants to talk about slavery in Massachusetts, but, of course, there is none—at least, there is no large-scale, state-sanctioned human enslavement that fuels economic production.  It could be said that through the Fugitive Slave Law the tendrils of slavery cross the line drawn by Mason and Dixon, thereby directly affecting Massachusetts; therefore there is slavery in this northern commonwealth in the sense that there are within its borders escaped slaves, people helping them, and people hunting them.  But additionally, the essay suggests something even less obvious:  “Much has been said about American slavery, but I think that we do not even yet realize what slavery is.”[4]  Despite the boldness of this assertion, it is not simply the case that Thoreau seeks to give us the ontological scoop on a phenomenon that seems straightforward enough.  He has no curtains he pulls back to reveal the real thing.  But the suggestion that there is slavery in Massachusetts means that within all of the struggle against this social evil, there is something not seen, something close that has yet to be given attention.


In the essay’s first paragraph Thoreau reports that he went to a citizens’ meeting in his hometown of Concord prepared to discuss the topic of slavery in Massachusetts, but his fellow citizens were only interested in talking about the expansion of slavery into Nebraska:

It was only the disposition of some wild lands a thousand miles off which appeared to concern them.  The inhabitants of Concord are not prepared to stand by one of their own bridges, but talk only of taking up a position on the highlands beyond the Yellowstone River....There is not one slave in Nebraska; there are perhaps a million slaves in Massachusetts.


This concern for a far-off territory coupled with the lack of concern for one’s own bridges constitute a transcendent longing, a casting of an activist gaze into a land  essentially unaffected by one’s concern.  These lines sound cold because, as Thoreau no doubt knows, showing concern, or demonstrating outrage, over Nebraska could very well affect (for the better) the lives of people living there.  For this reason, the dark humor of the paragraph’s final line is important.  The literal falsity of that line introduces to the reader a pattern of thought imperceptibly welded to the social condition he detests.  In other words, it implies that that which is not seen somehow causes the disturbing condition one knows to exist but can only imagine. So it would seem the treatment of such condition would be to see (more truly) what lies before one.  Hence there is the first line of the second paragraph:  “Those who have been bred in the school of politics fail now and always to face the facts.”  Since there are no clear facts to speak of, the emphasis of this line falls on the act of facing.  Facing can be understood as not overlooking (literally looking over, as in passing over) what is always overlooked.  It is a turning toward something true that is close but as yet unacknowledged.  There is the feeling of conversion and revolution in this verb, as when we speak of making an about-face, a complete turn in the opposite direction, allowing one to see what was previously invisible.  When Thoreau condemns those politically schooled for not facing facts, he is not diagnosing an ignorance.  He claims, rather, that the active political class fails to engage in the act of facing, which is a way of repeating the message of the first paragraph:  Because of their transcendent gaze, Massachusetts abolitionists fail to see the slavery in their midst.


In the essay’s last six paragraphs life emerges as a topic, beginning with this line:  “The effect of good government is to make life more valuable—of a bad one, to make it less valuable.”[5]  And finishing with these: 

Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life:  they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils.  We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried.  Let the living bury them:  even they are good for manure.[6]


Slavery offends life.  This is the ethical core of Thoreau’s argument, but its ostensible simplicity can be misleading.  Being Yankee abolitionists, Thoreau’s original readers already object to slavery, and most of his subsequent readers do as well.  So simply telling them that slavery is wrong constitutes a truism.  But claiming that slavery is wrong because it has no life in it raises the issue of life itself:  life becomes the justification for efforts at reform.  There is no appeal here to god as a source of morality or to a principle that transcends existence in order to determine right action. 

The appeal to life might not immediately catch one’s eye, because this word finds its way so easily into our speech.  Its use here, however, warrants thought.  First of all, life cannot be an object of knowledge.  How could Thoreau possess knowledge of life as a whole and then use this knowledge as a basis for moral reform?  To do so would require him to occupy an impossible perspective of grandiosity where all of life could come within his view.  In other words, he would have to stand outside of life in order to know it.  So any sort of moral imperative Thoreau gains by invoking life must come by a way other than knowledge.  Notice also that life is not an object of belief.  Thoreau does not believe in life in order to object to slavery.  Though often we contrast belief with knowledge (the former being uncertain, the latter being certain) it is common for us to act on our beliefs as if they were knowledge.  The uncertainty endemic to belief is not so much a barrier to specific action as it is an enhancement to such action.  Thus, belief and knowledge function in a similar, almost identical, manner.  Thoreau, then, neither believes in, nor has knowledge of life.  Yet he still speaks of life, and it is this speaking (in part) that makes the difference in his objection to slavery.


Think of life, in the way Thoreau invokes it, as a concept.  Normally we consider a concept to be a generalization that houses particulars, a form within the mind that actual experience fills with content, an intellectual template—the concept of an apple contains within it all of one’s particular experiences with apples.  And a mastery of concepts multiplies the mastery one can have over individual experiences—the concept of an apple might not enhance the experience of eating apples, but it does help one to recognize that the fist-sized red things growing on certain trees are tasty.  Certain concepts, however, function quite differently. Because it is one of the biggest generalizations one could make, the idea of life is virtually meaningless as such; it is a container in which nearly everything fits (even death, as in when one says, “Death is a part of life.”).  So the concept of life must have a different function than the cognitive mastery that most other concepts seem to give.  When Thoreau calls out life, this utterance creates an opening in a consciousness that seeks to clasp around things, because the concept is not itself an object that can be clasped.  What would it mean to grasp life?—possibly the possession an absolute wisdom, but that is laughable. When life is invoked, its importance is obvious (though its meaning is not).  Life signals importance (for nothing could be more serious), but it signifies nothing in particular.  When Thoreau introduces this concept he gives no real information to the reader, but instead, he raises the issue of value—life’s value can be enhanced or diminished by the quality of government.  It is not the case, however, that life stands beyond signification, like a radically transcendent deity.  It is the case, rather, that this concept disrupts human attempts at control that such radically divine transcendence would allow.  If god belongs to another world, what is to keep us from doing what we will to this one?  Possibly an intervention from god.  But these days who is willing to lay serious claim to such an event?  Would one want to be such a person?  It makes sense, then, that the concept of life opposes slavery because slavery is an extreme form of control, violently controlling a human for the specific desires of another.


Now is the time to draw the connection between life and the critique of transcendence.  Indeed, these two notions form the bookends of Thoreau’s essay.  With irony and a little mockery, the essay begins by criticizing the tendency of abolitionist activists to overlook what is in their midst in favor of more dramatic (but no more important) events in a distant place—a tendency I have called a transcendent gaze.  It finishes with an invocation of life as that which opposes slavery and servility.   I suggest that such a finish is a version of the essay’s opening.  That is, raising the concept of life acts as another critique of transcendence.  For what could be more immanent than life?  We participate in it; it surrounds us at every turn; we might hope some form of it exists after death, but that hope testifies to the value it holds here. One could attribute a transcendent source or a transcendent end to life.  But to speak, think, or act is to acknowledge (if not to attend to) the immanent presence (at the very least) of life.  So life not only opposes slavery, it opposes transcendence.  Life must, therefore, possess or enact an immanence of value.  Put more simply:  If life matters to you, that mattering is a response to a value that does not reside beyond anything; the attachment to life occurs before one can project life’s source into a transcendent sphere; before one can interpret life as a gift from god, one must experience life as a good thing.  And because such immanent value serves as a prod to moral reform, it cannot be equated with personal satisfaction.  Immanent value is not for or of one’s self, because it trips the transcendent tendencies of a self that will step on (and over) anything to be satisfied.


            It is worth emphasizing again that the philosophical practice of attending to immanent value does not amount to the selfish enjoyment of life as one finds it.  Arguments of this kind are often heard—that without god or some kind of transcendent principle there is no cause for ethical action, nothing that stretches the self to concern beyond itself, nothing to stop humans from doing what they will; therefore, the path of righteousness calls for a return to religion or rationality in their conventional (tried and true) forms.  Not only are such arguments made by conservative clerics, activists, and politicians, they are also increasingly made by academics and intellectuals who long for a version of transcendence that can stop the behemoth of capital.  But god and monsters are not always at odds, as an observant reading of what Christians call the Old Testament attests.[7]  In the current context what this means is that, rather than being an ethical ground, transcendence is an ethical problem because it itself is the operation that allows humans to do what they will.  The primary example used in this essay has been slavery:  my contention that to look through another human as the means to the satisfaction of one’s desires is the ultimate form of transcendence and Thoreau’s insistence (according to my reading) that a transcendent gaze prevents us from seeing the slavery in our midst.


            Talk of slavery might seem antiquated, perhaps even trite or melodramatic.  But Thoreau’s insistence that an unacknowledged slavery is in our midst exceeds his own historical context.  It speaks to us now, and I can hear it when I see the well-circulated photo of an Iraqi prisoner of war wearing a dog collar and leash being held by a U.S. soldier.  Such an image houses many stories.  One of them is the story of how the United States and other world superpowers have for over a century used particular nations and peoples as mere resources for energy, as new markets for the maximizing of profits, and as proxies for war, and this transcendent policy has sown seeds of resentment and desperation so vigorous that human life itself has become a terrifying weapon—making monsters of us all.



[1] Cf. Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming:  The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York:  Norton, 2006).

[2] Cf. Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence:  Essays on a Life, trans. Anne Boyman (New York:  Zone Books, 2001), 26-7.

[3] I am taking this position for granted, because I think a lot of people do.  A more sophisticated position, however, is that slavery was not perpetrated exclusively by evil individuals, but rather it was part of a large system of values and practices that many obeyed routinely without question.  This position mirrors that of Hannah Arendt’s on the genocidal actions of the Nazis in her book,  Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York:  Penguin, 1994).

[4] Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” paragraph 1.  Because of the many different published editions of Thoreau’s writings, I will cite references by essay or chapter title and paragraph number.

[5] Paragraph 43.

[6] Paragraph 48.

[7] Cf. Timothy K. Beal, Religion and Its Monsters (New York:  Routledge, 2002), esp. chapters 2-6.