The term Higher Law became popular in the mid-nineteenth century as an argument against the institution of slavery. In Slavery in Massachusetts, Thoreau writes, “What is wanted is men, not of policy, but of probity, —who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or the decision of the majority.”
One of Walden’s most enduring ideas is that of following your conscience, the beat of your own drummer. In this chapter,
If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies.
Another particularly Thoreauvian emphasis is reverencing wildness. To be clear, not wilderness or nature. This shows up in the Journals, his essay Walking—“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and here. He opens with spying a woodchuck,
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….I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.
While this is our opening, the chapter will take you in an unexpected direction. He provides a reasoned and unusual argument for hunting, all the while moving into an extended treatise on vegetarianism. He alludes to the Christian New Testament four times, Hindu Vedic scriptures three times, and the Hindu Laws of Menu, bringing sort of a universal authority to his personal blend of principles.
Remember, we are in search of what is essential and how to live a conscious life. This involves an ongoing consideration of principles and truth. “Our whole life is startlingly moral.” This doesn’t necessarily come from reading scriptures or attending Sunday services. The experience of moral principle is right here, right now. So the “channel of purity,” the body and mind, must be clean.
Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own….
While this echos the Book of Corinthians, it is also resoundingly yogic.
The chapter is emphatic, the tone more instructive than usual. While his desire to convince us may seem strident at times, remember this is Thoreau. We are always invited to our own way, even by the passionate and sometimes uncompromising example of our narrator.
Cramer, Jeffery. Walden, A Fully Annotated Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2004.