Saturday, February 24, 2007


Thoreau's Autarky

I'm reading Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind by Robert D. Richardson Jr. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), which came to my attention through Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence. It's a fine biography, on a level with Walter Harding's The Days of Henry Thoreau and Henry Seidel Canby's Thoreau, and the following are mere quibbles.

On pp. 104-105, Richardson states:
Thoreau's interest in individual reformation also led him back to the Greek ethical schools, and particularly to Stoicism -- the search for self-rule or autarky -- and the same interest should be seen as a practical consequence of a serious immersion in the new, Kantian, subjectivism.
Autarky doesn't mean self-rule; it means self-sufficiency. The word comes from Greek αὐτάρκεια (autárkeia), itself from αὐτός (autós) = self and ἀρκέω (arkéo) which in its passive form means be satisfied, content. There is no connection with Greek ἀρχή (arché) = rule, sovereignty.

The same mistake occurs on p. 316:
Walden modernizes and extends the idea of freedom by reviving the classical, Stoic emphasis on autarky or self-rule, by domesticating into an American context the Hindu concept of the "final liberation" of the spirit, and by equating freedom with the wildness he understood to be the source and raw material of all civilization and culture.
Euripides is misspelled Euripedes every time it appears in the book (pp. 24, 78, 445). Finally, there are errors on p. 255:
Linnaeus's crisp Latin says "lapidae crescunt, vegetabile crescunt et vivunt, animali crescunt vivunt et sentiunt." The word that Thoreau could not have missed is crescunt, from cresco, to come into existence, spring forth, grow. It is the transitive equivalent of creo, to create.
The quotation from Linnaeus is mangled. It comes from the introduction to his Systema Naturae and should be Lapides crescunt, Vegetabilia crescunt et vivunt, Animalia crescunt, vivunt et sentiunt. Richardson's chapter heading on p. 254 should thus be Lapides Crescunt, not Lapidae Crescunt. Also, cresco is intransitive, not transitive.

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