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Book Review: ...Orientals Meet Occidentals

Shoji Goto, The Philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau: Orientals Meet Occidentals (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007). Foreword by Phyllis Cole. 194 pp. $109.95.

Reviewed by Randall Conrad

[Condensed, with permission, from Resources for American Literary Study #33 (2010).]

The author, a lifelong American Literature specialist at Rikkyo University (Tokyo), takes issue with the Western-centric orientation (whether explicit or unconscious) of most studies of Emerson and Thoreau. . Prof. Goto argues persuasively that if Emerson and Thoreau draw so much upon the classic Asian philosophers, notably Confucius and Mencius, it is by no means from mere eclecticism or exoticism. On the contrary, as he demonstrates, Emerson in particular journeyed outside traditional Western thought-forms in search of a unifying foundation for a wholly new belief system.  Transcendentalism may thus be re-imagined as an original American philosophy forged from non-Western elements.

In his opening chapters, Prof. Goto establishes and clarifies Emerson's search for alternatives to the categories and dialectical dynamic of Western philosophical tradition. "Though an ardent reader and devotee of Plato, Emerson will not make his way of thinking depend on those of Plato and his followers," he explains. "Emersonian metaphysics and approaches are unique in the West, and are not dramatic dialogues with logical developments based on a premise ... rather, he [Emerson] simply and suddenly recognizes that all objects visible and patent are externalizations of the latent and innate, writing in his journal of the visible world as being inseparably connected with the spiritual" (47).

Henry Thoreau began as a follower of Emerson, and it is to the philosopher of Walden Woods that Prof. Goto turns in his concluding chapters. In an extensive discussion of "Civil Disobedience," Prof. Goto exposes contradictions and fallacies in the editorial policies that were followed in the authoritative Princeton Edition of Thoreau's writings. His anti-parochial argument becomes a withering indictment of what he calls "tenacious Orient-phobia ... among scholars" (169) as he blames America-centric academics for seriously distorting Thoreauvian transcendentalism. The bibliographic research that is the basis of Prof. Goto's charge his sleuthing of how a key reference to Confucian political philosophy has been omitted from most modern editions is intricate and highly plausible.

Thoreau's now-famous essay was initially published in 1849 as "Resistance to Civil Government." The title "Civil Disobedience" was bestowed only in 1866 upon a slightly different posthumous edition. Following editorial rules laid down by the Modern Language Association's Center for Editions of American Authors, influential twentieth-century editors, primarily Wendell Glick (1973) and William Rossi (1992), sanctioned the 1849 version and title with Rossi flatly declaring, "Neither [the] title nor other alterations of the text for the 1866 printing have any authority" on the ground that Thoreau had little or nothing to do with the latter-day revision.

Thoreau in his final months revised a number of his essays for publication while bedridden and dying of tuberculosis. While we still lack holographic evidence to prove beyond doubt that the 1866 version is Thoreau's handiwork, there is enough circumstantial evidence of his intentions to have persuaded another camp of expert editors, chiefly Walter Harding (1967) and Hugo Bedau (1991), to assume the existence of a corrected copy made by Thoreau, thus validating the more popular title and, more importantly, the posthumous revisions. It is this evidence that Prof. Goto marshals and sets before the jury.

Although most of the 1866 revisions are trivial matters of typesetting, a handful of them are problematic. Notably, one new sentence was added to Thoreau's stirring concluding paragraph.

In 1849, the final paragraph read, in part:

The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

In 1866, between the first and second sentences excerpted above, the following sentence was interpolated: "Even the Chinese philosopher [i.e., Confucius] was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire." Thoreau's point, clearly, is that recognition of individuals' rights not only is the basis of modern democracy but also was the foundation of imperial government, ages ago. (When a dynasty no longer provided peace and prosperity but became corrupt, it was considered to have lost the "Mandate of Heaven" [divine right] and the people were justified in rebelling against the old regime.) This editorial revision, surely authorial, lends resonance to Thoreau's famous declaration about government in "Civil Disobedience" ("to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed"). He is not simply invoking America's Declaration of Independence, but harking back to an ancient idea of popular sanction.

"Why and by whom were these alterations made, if not by Thoreau himself?" Prof. Goto inquires (86), arguing that Thoreau's insertion of the Confucian allusion in his conclusion is his important "finishing touch" to "Civil Disobedience" (121), comprising a major transcendentalist counterstatement against Hegelian social idealism. It would be beyond the scope of this review to delve further into Prof. Goto's substantial, painstaking researches; suffice it to conclude that The Philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau, voicing as it does an Asian corrective to parochial trends in "American studies," deserves wide appreciation.

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010