But for a time he was to live in the world of men, at least in that very remarkable section of the world of which Emerson was the centre and which professed the Transcendentalist doctrines. Thoreau took up his lodgings in Emerson’s house and very soon became, so his friends said, almost indistinguishable from the prophet himself. If you listened to them both talking with your eyes shut you could not be certain where Emerson left off and Thoreau began ‘…in his manners, in the tones of his voice, in his modes of expressions, even in the hesitations and pauses of his speech, he had become the counterpart of Mr. Emerson.’ This may well have been so. The strongest natures, when they are influenced, submit the most unreservedly; it is perhaps a sign of their strength. But that Thoreau lost any of his own force in the process, or took on permanently any colours not natural to himself the readers of his books will certainly deny.--Virginia Woolf (July 12, 1917:) commemorating the 100th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth for the Times Literary Supplement.
It's almost a century ago that Woolf published these remarks. I was reminded of her moving essay, and this passage, in particular, yesterday when, in the company of my former supervisor, I heard him (my Doktorvater), say, in passing (in a festive mood after a succesful defense of one of my students), that's just swell.+ (As it happens we had just discussed Allan Bloom's distaste for Zelig.) Now, I was not surprised by his use; I have long known that somehow, without initially noticing it, I have picked up the habit of using this (folksy) expression from him. Luckily, despite my fascination with prophets, we do not share many doctrines (but recall) and, as he will be the first to remind me, I am no Thoreau (and he is no Emerson).
While few philosophers live with their intellectual mentors, the phenomenon that Woolf describes is familiar enough. There are many mannerism associated with certain intellectual environments (when the Oxford trained philosopher of a certain generation in a galaxy far away says (recall), 'I am confused' to you, you know they think you are a moron.) I am sure the next sentence will land me in trouble (but here goes): for a while, I could unfailingly pick out a Pittsburgh trained philosopher based on the way s/he nodded during a lecture (in apparent disagreement) or used the phrase 'deep' to pick out a favored position. (There was selection bias.)
Of course, what makes Woolf's description (she is quoting a description by a former classmate of Thoreau, the Rev. John Weiss,) especially amusing is that both Emerson and Thoreau strongly attacked conformism and praised robust forms of individuality (recall this post, for example). In fact, Woolf enjoys her own joke so much that she adds for good measure, "The strongest natures, when they are influenced, submit the most unreservedly; it is perhaps a sign of their strength." Here she is also recalling Emerson's and Thoreau's interest in magnanimity (of course a strong soul need not always be a magnanimous soul, but, following, say, Thomas (inspired by Seneca), Emerson couples them (for example here) and so does Thoreau) [for a lovely paper on this topic, see Andrew Corsa, himself a former student].
Besides joking, Woolf makes the further point that certain forms of submission may well be the expression of a form of courage.* At first, she does not explain what she has in mind. But she returns to the topic later in her essay, "He was a wild man, and he would never submit to be a tame one." Again, she echoes Thoreau here (his work is suffused with the strong tropological contrasts between wildness/strength/true America vs civilization/weakness/cultured Europe (false America). Somewhat mischievously,** Woolf goes on (in the original quote at the top of this post) to conflate the persona as presented by Thoreau to his readers with the author/the man Thoreau.
Be that as it may, we may say that for Woolf, on her reading of Thoreau,*** that in one's education, or path to wisdom, a species of courage consists in submitting to the right sort of influence or exemplar. In so doing, one need not become inauthentic (colours...natural to himself) nor loose one's identity/strength++ (lost any of his own force), although even the strong soul may do so along the way (permanently).
Woolf here reminds the reader that much true education involves a potentially temporary submission to the will of another. (My blog-persona reminds you, dear reader, that this is also true (recall) of reading other people's ephemera.) And sometimes education involves oneself in a comical, repetitive mimicking, with or without difference, of other people's ticks or turns of phrase.
Isn't that swell?
+I noticed my own susceptibility in these matters when I discerned that I had picked up the phrase, "fair enough" from my undergraduate mentor, G.E. Smith.
*Houellebecq's Submission is a kind of ironic-serious meditation on the nature of such courage. Bt about that some other time.
**Given that Woolf something about the nature of identity (recall), I am disinclined to tread this as a blunder. For, a few paragraph downs she reminds (a) the reader that "Thoreau himself was an extremely complex human being" it is unlikely she this complexity is exhausted by the persona he has presented because Woolf draws on biographical details supplied by others and (b) that Thoreau crafted his persona carefully (for example, he condensed "hirty volumes of diaries...from time to time with infinite care into little books.")
***Woolf's sure touch deserts her when she writes, "He had the toughness, the stoicism, the unspoilt senses of an Indian, combined with the self-consciousness, the exacting discontent, the susceptibility of the most modern." For, while I agree with the diagnosis of a stoic streak (which I find even more pronounced in Emerson), she has a tendency here (as elsewhere in her post) to adopt a Rousseau-ian, noble savage, perspective on 'the' Indian. I don't find this perspective in Thoreau.
++This assumes that one's force/power is one's essence (as it is, say, in Spinoza's so-called conatus doctrine). It also assumes away, auto-mimesis (recall this post).