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Allegory of Animal and Human Warfare in “Battle of the Ants” by Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece Walden is full of beautifully descriptive prose, and

at times very seditious writing often masked as simple observations of nature; specifically a

passage from chapter twelve entitled “Battle of the Ants”. “Battle of the Ants” is Thoreau’s

observation of two species of ants fighting to the death; he takes this opportunity to ingeniously

exemplify the ways in which the ants’ brutal struggle for life or death mimics that present in

human warfare. The first paragraph of this excerpt follows Thoreau as he finds three ants

fighting amongst the woodchips, and then expands his field of view to discover that it is fact a

huge war taking place. This discovery is noted as he states it was not a “duellem, but a bellum”,

meaning that he was witnessing a purposeful waged war in the human sense, not merely

creatures fighting over a mate or scrap of food. The ants are referred to as “Myrmidons” which

“covered all the hills and vales” to conjure up images of legions of armored Greek warriors

seeking conquest of new lands. To end the paragraph he gives the example that it was an

“Internecine war between the red republicans and black imperialists” comparing the smaller but

more numerous red ants to the people, and the powerful black ants to the ruling imperial parties

of the day.

Next Thoreau focuses the scope of the story on just a few ants at a time, in the second

paragraph he isolates a few separate combatants and anthropomorphizes the emotions and

motivations for war which he imagines for them. Upon observation of a smaller red ant attacking

a larger foe despite being hobbled it is said “it is evident that their battle cry must be “Conquer or

Die””, Thoreau is alluding to human war, and the demonization, propaganda, and rhetoric which

accompany it. He expands on this point by referencing the ancient Spartan custom of wives and

mothers sending away their warriors, as he imagines the ants’ did, and saying “Return with your
shield or upon it”. Thoreau goes on to ridicule the ridiculousness of human war as a spectator

sport in the passage: “to find that they had their respective musical bands … playing the national

airs to excite and cheer the dying combatants”. At the end of paragraph two he overtly explains

the purpose of his essay when he writes: “The more you think of it, the less the difference” in the

comparison of the ant battle to that of humans.

The final paragraph of Thoreau’s essay is centered around two red ants and one black ant

on a small woodchip which he removes from the heat of battle and places under a microscope in

his home. Thoreau gives the example of “ghastly trophies hanging from his saddlebow”, to

compare gruesome human warfare to the still living heads of dead ants which covered the

combatants he was observing on the woodchip. Thoreau also comments, once the black and is

victorious and marching away over the window sill, that he does not know if he will survive the

combat or spend the rest of his days at a “Hotel des Invalides”. He is referring to the everlasting

damage of war upon the combatants and that many will end up as nothing more than invalids for

the rest of their days despite achieving a “victory”. To sum up his sweeping commentary

Thoreau says that “I never learned who was victorious, nor the cause of the war” with such

platitudinousness as to imply that it is really of no importance in human war either, it is the act

itself which holds the attraction of the participants and observers and not the cause or result.

Throughout the three distinct paragraphs of Thoreau’s “Battle of the Ants”, he takes the reader

on a journey through the different levels of battle being waged by two species of ants, and upon

closer examination also derisively shows human battle to be of little more importance.