Thoreau's Living Ethics

Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue

Title Details

Pages: 288

Illustrations: 1 figure

Trim size: 6.000in x 9.000in



Pub Date: 03/01/2006

ISBN: 9-780-8203-2843-0

List Price: $32.95

Thoreau's Living Ethics

Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue

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  • Description
  • Reviews

Thoreau's Living Ethics is the first full, rigorous account of Henry Thoreau's ethical philosophy. Focused on Walden but ranging widely across his writings, the study situates Thoreau within a long tradition of ethical thinking in the West, from the ancients to the Romantics and on to the present day. Philip Cafaro shows Thoreau grappling with important ethical questions that agitated his own society and discusses his value for those seeking to understand contemporary ethical issues.

Cafaro's particular interest is in Thoreau's treatment of virtue ethics: the branch of ethics centered on personal and social flourishing. Ranging across the central elements of Thoreau's philosophy—life, virtue, economy, solitude and society, nature, and politics—Cafaro shows Thoreau developing a comprehensive virtue ethics, less based in ancient philosophy than many recent efforts and more grounded in modern life and experience. He presents Thoreau's evolutionary, experimental ethics as superior to the more static foundational efforts of current virtue ethicists.

Another main focus is Thoreau's environmental ethics. The book shows Thoreau not only anticipating recent arguments for wild nature's intrinsic value, but also demonstrating how a personal connection to nature furthers self-development, moral character, knowledge, and creativity. Thoreau's life and writings, argues Cafaro, present a positive, life-affirming environmental ethics, combining respect and restraint with an appreciation for human possibilities for flourishing within nature.

By marking out one way to approach Thoreau as a philosopher, Thoreau's Living Ethics does not merely open a route for new admirers. Ideally, it will also prompt others who love Thoreau to follow the lead and search for additional ways of shedding light on his work.

—Rick Anthony Furtak, Thoreau Society Bulletin

Thoreau's Living Ethics is full of subtleties and insights, and demands slow perusal and thoughtful reflection. . . . A mind-stretching book for armchair philosophers to read and ponder.


A great strength of the book is its novel contribution to Thoreau studies and the compelling case Cafaro makes for Thoreau's work being valuable to ethicists today. . . . Cafaro has written an excellent and engaging book that is a timely supplement to the growing body of literature on virtue and environmental virtue ethics. . . . Thoreau's Living Ethics demands that philosophers take Thoreau's ethical work more seriously than they have.

Philosophy in Review

I recommend Thoreau's Living Ethics: an outstanding, accessible commentary and a valuable work in environmental ethics in its own right.

Environmental Values

Thoreau left Walden when he found that his daily walks were wearing paths in the woods. Phil Cafaro has no analogous reluctance to be a pathbreaker in the field of environmental philosophy. This is an important contribution not only to Thoreau scholarship but to environmental virtue ethics as well. Indeed, Cafaro has done as much as anyone to make these fields grow.

—David Schmidtz, author of Rational Choice and Moral Agency

Philip Cafaro's analysis expands virtue ethics beyond concern for persons in dialogue with their society to a more inclusive concern: our residence in the natural world. Thoreau is a splendid role model for excellence in personal life, in citizenship, and in living on Earth. Cafaro's insights complement those of his hero. The great strength of this book lies in its critical vision of the examined life in a world well worth living in.

—Holmes Rolston III, author of Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World

Philip Cafaro understands very clearly and communicates very effectively the profoundly ethical basis for Thoreau's writings and convincingly details the many facets of Thoreau's ethical philosophy. Thoreau is one of America's greatest writers, as everyone will admit, but scholars and critics have rarely given sufficient emphasis to Thoreau's ethics, which Cafaro rightly places center stage. Thoreau's Living Ethics constitutes an extremely valuable contribution to Thoreau studies.

—Bradley P. Dean, editor of the Thoreau Society Bulletin

Thoreau's Living Ethics is the first book-length study of Thoreau's ethics in the English-speaking world. . . . Cafaro has done a substantial amount to open up a new field: environmental virtue ethics. . . . It is well worth having in a general collection and is a significant source for anyone working on or around Thoreau.


About the Author/Editor

PHILIP CAFARO is an assistant professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado.