Summary and Analysis
Chapter 11 - Higher Laws
While coming home from fishing one night, the narrator was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of rank, primitive animality, a feeling of wildness. Seeing a woodchuck cross his path, he felt "a strange thrill of savage delight" and was "strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw." This same instinctual urge had come to him previously. At times, he found himself "ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour." The narrator qualifies these somewhat extreme remarks by telling his readers that he was not literally hungry, but that he did strongly desire the experience of wildness, the vicarious feeling of animal existence in nature.
Almost immediately, the narrator tells us of another instinctive urge that he frequently felt: "I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men." Thus there are two instinctual drives that dominate his personality, and he tells us that he reveres them both: "I love the wild not less than the good." Yet, while this is true, he spends the rest of the chapter explaining how his instinctual animality is not only inferior to, but in conflict with, his inclination toward spirituality.
He explains this problem by focusing on the matter of his nourishment while at Walden Pond. While gradually developing his spiritual faculties, he adopted a diet of ascetic, more spiritual foods. This was a part of his self-purification process, for he had virtually given up hunting and fishing because eating flesh seemed "essentially unclean." Yet, he realized that the animal urge toward flesh was still very much a part of him: "If I were to live in a wilderness I should again be tempted to become a fisher and hunter in earnest." His animal nature can be controlled and lessened, but it cannot be eradicated — "possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature."
The narrator believes, however, that he and all men are gradually evolving through time toward a more spiritual, less animal, state. "Whatever my own practice may be," he says, "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." To give a concrete illustration of this point, he tells us how he once, in his youth, greatly delighted in hunting. In fact, he still believes that it is a very valuable activity for young men because it brings them in close contact with nature. Because of this contact, the narrator gradually gave up hunting for animals in nature and began to "hunt" for higher, more spiritual "game." He sees this change in his own interests as natural in a man's growth process, and he advises parents to encourage such growth in their boys: "Make them hunters, though sportsmen only at first; if possible, mighty hunters at last, so that they shall not find game large enough for them in this or any vegetable wilderness — hunters as well as fishers of men." Some day they will bag spiritual truths, higher laws, instead of woodchucks and rabbits. Once the individual lessens his animality, as the narrator was able to do, his spiritual purity will be increased and he will come to his perfection.
"Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome." This statement, and indeed the entire chapter, may surprise the careful reader who recalls the celebration of the woodchopper's animality and the narrator's happy claim, made at the beginning of "The Ponds," that he has successfully integrated nature and spirit in his self. All of a sudden, the narrator is now declaring the superiority of spirit over nature and the incompatibility of spirituality and animality — in this chapter, the worlds of spirit and nature are put at odds. In short, the narrator's self is once again confronting a dialectical situation — which, again, must be resolved if his vision of life is to remain an integrated one. For while spirit is higher than nature, the narrator will not give up his vital relationship with nature; somehow, he must reconcile the apparent opposition between his spiritual instincts and his animal instincts.
To Thoreau, as well as to Emerson and other transcendentalists, nature reveals absolute truths. Therefore, we find the narrator turning to natural phenomena for an answer to his problem. Nature immediately confirms his belief that animality in man is opposed to spiritual perfection. He learns this by focusing on the life cycle of a butterfly. The butterfly, in its perfect state of fulfillment as a creature, eats very little, whereas the imperfect larva of the butterfly consumes every edible bit that it finds. From this, the narrator "skims off" a truth for man: "the gross feeder is a man in the larva state," while the ascetic individual is in his "butterfly" state, his state of perfection.
As may be noted, the narrator has not resolved the conflict between animality and spirituality. His examination of a particular natural phenomenon has only strengthened the conviction that "every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food." Upon a closer consideration of the butterfly, however, the narrator seems to find the key to his dilemma: "The abdomen under the wings of the butterfly still represents the larva." In the perfected body of the butterfly is integrated the lower state of his life and the higher. Here is what the narrator may be able to do. He may be able to perfect his lowly animal nature to the point at which it will not conflict with his spiritual nature. Since "we are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones," the body may be fashioned into a fit "temple" for the inner spiritual self. As the spiritual self is perfected, the "temple" will eventually be refined from within and physically show perfection.