In "The Battle of the Ants," how does Thoreau blur the distinction between history and natural history? To what effect?ordinarily we speak of accounts of natural events as "natural history" and...

In "The Battle of the Ants," how does Thoreau blur the distinction between history and natural history? To what effect?

ordinarily we speak of accounts of natural events as "natural history" and accounts of human events as "history." how does Thoreau, in this selection, blur the distinction? To what effect?

Asked on by bhambo

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Referring to the battle of the red ants with the black ants, Thoreau remarks,

I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men.  The more you think of it, the less the difference.  And certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment's comparison with this, whether for the numbers engaged in it, or for the patriotism and heroism displayed.  For numbers and for carnage it was an Austerlitz or Dresden....I have not doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors....

Thoreau likens the ants to Achilles who comes to avenge his friend Patroclus; the wounded ants, he wonders, may spend their last days at the Hotel des Invalides, a veterans' hospital in Paris where Napoleon is buried. Thoreau comments that he had had his feelings

excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door....

A keen observer of nature, Thoreau perceives the interconnection of all creatures, man or otherwise.  Just as man struggles against other men, so does the red ant struggle against the black, with every bit as much intensity as man.  It is, clearly, a part of life to have the battles of thee stronger against the weaker; animal instincts do exist in man, and there will be a struggle for dominance. But by the end of Chapter Twelve of Walden, in which this passage is located, Thoreau concludes that both the animal and spiritual natures coexist in animals and animals experience no conflict between the two, while men do.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

You can see how Thoreau blurs the distinction by looking at the ways he talks about the ants.  He tends to describe them in human ways.  He decides the red ants are "republicans" and the black ants "imperialists."  He talks about how the one ant's mother has told him to go fight and win or die trying.  He talks about the black ant that he had watched particularly and he wonders what his fate was.  He even says he is as interested as he would have been in a human war.

The effect here is to emphasize the point he is trying to make.  He is trying to say, I think, that human wars are pretty pointless.  He manages to convey this by comparing even such things as the revolution to the wars of little insignificant (to us) ants.

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