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MonkeyNotes-Walden by Henry David Thoreau
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Chapter Eleven: Higher Laws

Summary

This chapter opens with the story of one evening when Thoreau was walking in the woods after a fishing trip. A woodchuck ran in front of him, and he had the sudden savage urge to catch the animal and eat it raw. It was not that Thoreau was particularly hungry; he was just hit with an animal instinct to triumph over the wildness of the woodchuck. The result of this strange urge is that Thoreau begins to reflect on the untamed side of human nature.

First, Thoreau thinks about the pastime of hunting and remembers how he enjoyed the sport as a boy; in fact, he feels that his hunting experiences were a very important part of his adolescence. Though he no longer kills animals himself and thinks that hunting, for the most part, is "wanton murder," he still believes it has a value for young people, for it teaches them about both wildlife and themselves.

Almost as an afterthought, Thoreau states that he is a vegetarian and then goes off on a tangent about it. For him, meals made from the fruits of his gardening are simpler to prepare and cleaner to eat, as well as being less expensive. Also in a poetic, idealistic sense, he sees his refusal to eat meat as a step towards a higher level of existence, for there is something barbaric in the consumption of other living beings. Thoreau holds the butterfly as a superior creature to any human who cannot resist eating meat. When the caterpillar transforms itself into a butterfly, it survives on only a few drops of honey.


Thoreau truly believes that becoming a vegetarian is one way to self-improvement. He narrates in an elaborate fashion what it means to elevate oneself from meanness (or simple, unelevated lifestyles) to higher planes of existence and creativity. He talks of the need to purify one's own body, which he describes as if it were a sacred temple. To achieve a sacred state, one has to give up all manner of uncleanness, both physical and spiritual.

Thoreau then goes on to attack vices of all kind, including lust, excesses of alcohol and food, and too much sleep; it is almost as if he is preaching a Puritan manifesto. He also encourages people to live a life of which they are not ashamed and to be proud of their bodies, honoring them as temples of the human spirit. He thinks that it is sad that modern men have such difficulty discussing the functions and needs of their physical beings. If one were truly able to consider his body a temple, there would be no shame at all in discussing it thoroughly.

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