Thoreau's extraordinary essay "Walking" is obviously an encomium on what the author calls "the art of Walking" and an exhortation to readers to understand and practice that art. Yes, but we must realize that he speaks of the art of walking in no "pedestrian" sense (if this expression may be excused). Thoreau not only wants us to think the unthought in ordinary walking but to participate in the essay's performance of an allegory or analogue of the practice that he calls sauntering to the Holy Land; it becomes an itinerary through the fields of language that reveals unsuspected sights and horizons. These things become clear at the outset (as Mao Tsetung says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step). Indeed, the very title of the essay-and Berel Lang has some penetrating observations on philosophical titles-can be taken both as naming its content or object and as a self-referential metaphor for its own method or way of proceeding, a meaning that becomes clearer once we understand what he takes walking to be. As I'll argue, a large share of what we are to learn from the essay has to do with our walk through the surprises lurking in our words (not only our woods), so it may be worthwhile to recall that a methodos is originally a way or a road. We hear quickly that this is a rare art, one not accomplished simply by bipedal locomotion, for in the second paragraph Thoreau writes "I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,-who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering" . This declaration leads immediately to a speculative philosophical-linguistic discussion of the etymology of "sauntering," an Erorterung worthy of Heidegger, in which that apparently most mundane of our activities is seen with fresh wonder. Genuine walking or sauntering is distinguished from mere vagrancy or random wandering. Indeed, "[h]e who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all," since such persons may simply drift with whatever social, economic, or other currents carry them along.
Copyright © 2013 Lexington Books. This book chapter first appeared in Ethics, Art, and Representations of the Holocaust: Essays in Honor of Berel Lang.
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Shapiro, Gary. "Speaking a Word for Nature: Thoreau's Philosophical Saunter." In Ethics, Art, and Representations of the Holocaust: Essays in Honor of Berel Lang, edited by Simone Gigliotti, Jacob Golomb, and Caroline Steinberg Gould, 141-58. Lexington Books, 2013