Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part Two

Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact, that there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousands of miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private seas, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone. (578)

The chapters in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or, Life in the Woods, following the indispensable introductory chapter “Economy,” consider different aspects of Thoreau’s economic, social, and philosophical life. They all flow from “Economy” and can be read in really any order once that initial chapter has been mastered. Oft-repeated, in many different ways, is his claim that most of the accoutrements of modern living are unnecessary—or even hostile—to living a good and reflective (he might say a “philosophical”) life. A handful of the chapters will be of special interest to people interested in nature writing, since they are focused on the local environment near Thoreau’s home at Walden pond. No chapter, even the ones devoted to nature, are indifferent to the social. Although he lived alone, he was never far enough away from society. Despite his choice to live alone, in the woods, Thoreau seems to have longed for human encounters and the authentic solidarity that came from interacting with neighbors. He has, however, utter disgust for the hierarchy and presumption that shapes so many human experiences. In his view, solidarity and community must be based on individual autonomy. Without it, you travel inexorably down the path to hierarchy.

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The joint chapters “Solitude” and “Visitors” consider the nature of loneliness and society. He finds most social interactions worthless compared to a more spiritual connection. It bears mentioning that most of the lonely people are surrounded by others all the time and Thoreau, living alone, claims to have been rarely lonely surrounded by nature and never far from potential visitors and conversation.

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable, and tat we need not come to open war. We meet at the post office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications. Consider the girls in a factory,—never alone, hardly in their dreams. (430)

Perhaps this is the introvert’s perspective on social life. Looking around, I see plenty of people who seem to relish the constant companionship of others (otherwise explain the constant texting and Facebook updating). Are those who do not see a contradiction between withdrawing from the banality of society and yet longing for some rich company in the minority?

The chapter “Higher Laws” is of particular interest to me for it takes on the question of the morality of eating meat. He suggests that eating meat (as with hunting) is something that exists in the larval state of humanity. (That is his metaphor.) “We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.” (492) The argument, fully developed, is that when people takes the time to understand their neighbors they will less likely be desiring to exploit and harm them. He then goes onto a discussion of other appetites and how they do not satisfy him, but we can develop his argument in another way and suggest that is it not also true that capitalism and its values exist in the larval stages of modernity. Thrust from our communities only recently, we are still like the young boy who first picks up his rifle, when we interact with our neighbors. Thoreau overcomes the desire to eat meat as he comes to understand the animals he shares his world with. In the same way, actually building communities and solidarity is the key to destroying the violence of capitalism. An interesting suggestion in this chapter is that self-sufficiency demands solidarity and simplicity in life. Someone who cooks their own food, washes their own dishes, and builds their own home will naturally accept a bit more simplicity than one who relies on others to do that job for them.

I am sure many readers of Walden find the type of he lives appealing, but has anyone read this account with a bit of disgust. Are most enthusiastic readers of Walden deceiving themselves? Deep down, do they really think such a life is possible for themselves? I have not uncommonly heard people proclaim the virtues of a simple life, yet maintain massive wardrobes. I am sure every “hoarder” can read a book like Walden and see its wisdom. Why is the gap between thought and action so far in this respect? Perhaps they will equivocate and say: “Well, that was possible in nineteenth century New England, but not now.” Was Thoreau any better prepared for two years in the woods than anyone living today? Perhaps, but it did not sound like anything he did was beyond the capacity of someone with a bit of common sense.

I think we should set aside the critique of “lifestylism” and take Thoreau seriously as a systemic critique of industrial capitalism and a model of an alternative. He clearly desired a future written with a new set of rules. In this way, he remains a politically important voice as we engage in creative imagining of the future.

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness [sic]. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only. It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable, and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind. Who knows what sort of seventeenth-year locust will next come out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine. (587)

Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part One

I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstance, and they know whether they are well employed or not—but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them. There are some who complain most energetically and inconsolably of any, because they are, as they say, doing their duty. I also have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters. (335)

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Walden by Henry David Thoreau probably is the central text in the American anarchist tradition, although Thoreau never used that word as far as I know. Walden describes the technical details about Thoreau’s two years living near Walden Pond in relative isolation from his neighbors (although he was in walking distance from Concord). He saw it as a successful experiment in self-sufficiency. He took pains to describe how his experiment worked and why his model of simplicity was preferable to the values embraced by industrializing America. He was not rejecting progress. He saw what he was doing as clearly improvements and developments, including building a house, raising crops, and experimenting in innovative techniques. Through it all, however, his pursued these improvements in respect to his own values, needs, and desires.

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I am not sure how applicable the way of life described in Walden is to our world. I am sure many anarchists today would accuse someone pursuing a similar experiment today of engaging in “lifestylism,” or point out how his privileged position (having access to Emerson’s land near Concord, being a white male, etc.). These critiques may be fair, but throughout Walden, Thoreau neither rejects the need to critique the world he lives in (the one that began again a mile from his house) nor turns his back on community and society.

Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubts that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. (328)

The opening chapter of Walden is the longest. Since it is such a doozy, I will focus just on it today. This chapter stands as one of the great individualist critiques of industrial capitalism. Its prominent place in the book reminds us that Thoreau is interested in the social relations at the root of the rapidly changing world that he lived in. The fact of rapid transformation makes the lessons of the elders meaningless to Thoreau. One problem that industrial capitalism is that is distances us from a knowledge of what is really needed for life and our own capacities. The appeal of the “frontier life” is that it articulates the boundaries of this need and individual potential. He uses the metaphor of being too “warm” to suggest the nefarious aspect of growing wealthy and pursuing luxuries. Intellectual labors have been similarly degraded into the pursuit of luxury, rather than philosophy. By dwelling on the question of necessity, Thoreau tells us that we are not actually that far from post-scarcity (and if we were in 1854 we certainly are now). Increased false needs, luxuries and the like, are one of the major chains preventing us from living freely. Another aspect of this is the feeling that production has value only for commerce. For an individual, the fact that someone does not want to purchase what another has created does not decrease the value of that thing for the creator.

Following this, he explores some of the necessities of life, such as clothing, shelter, and food. The purpose of economy must be to achieve these needs, but our understanding of our needs has been perverted. While some of his arguments about self-sufficiency are dated, others seem inspiring to me. The idea of people building their own home rather than accept a lifetime of debt to banks is not only admirable, but perfectly within the realm of possibility, especially is pursed in community solidarity. From our late capitalist perspective we can look at Thoreau’s model for individual self-sufficiency as a model for sustainability by limited consumption. It is also an argument against work. He insisted that he had to work for others only as a day laborer for a few days per year. Compare this to the endless wage slavery most people of the world face today (if they are the “lucky” ones with jobs). In short, limited needs means limited need to work and limited obligation to institutions indifferent to your survival. This is not an anti-social argument, but a foundation for a much more sociable experience. He does think it is hard for people of radically different values and strategies in life to work together, but he is open to people getting their “living together.” (379)

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He has a useful examples of the added benefit of a simple life. Two people want to travel. One walks, working along the way as necessary, but always making progress toward her goal. The second, works to save up enough to purchase a train ticket. Thoreau was unconvinced that the later would reach the destination first and would have a much less meaningful experience. Today, I guess few people still take the option of working on a merchant ship to see the world, but I think we can think seriously about travelling in lower tech ways. Two weeks on a train, instead of one day on a plane may seem rational and ensure I will miss the least amount of work, but I can think of much added value that could come from the slower option.

The chapter on economy ends with a criticism of the reformism that was so popular in Thoreau’s day. He targeting philanthropy as essentially an outside imposition on people’s lives, full of moral baggage. He may have underestimated the horror of poverty, often making an assumption that a poor person may enjoy his life, but we can still take from him a belief that charity need not be presumptuous.

Following “Economy” is a series of shorter chapters that go on until the end of the book. They deal with a variety of topics. Sometimes building off of themes in the first chapter. They can, and should be, read in small chunks for various bits of applied wisdom. I think outside of “Economy,” which really is a primer for the rest, the chapters of Walden can be consumed freely and willfully. I, however, was systematic. I will talk about some of these seventeen chapters in the next post.

Henry David Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”: Saturday, Sunday, Monday

Surely the fates are forever kind, through Nature’s laws are more immutable than any despot’s, yet to man’s daily life they rarely seem rigid, but permit him to relax with license in summer weather. He is not harshly reminded of the things he may not do. She is very kind and liberal to all men of vicious habits, and certainly does not deny them quarter; they do not die without priest. Still they maintain life along the way, keeping this side the Styx, still hearty, still resolute, “never better in their lives”; and again, after a dozen years have elapsed, they start up from behind a hedge, asking for work and wages for able-bodied men. (30)

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Henry David Thoreau’s brilliant book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is hard to summarize or even isolate thematically. Like the subtly changing landscapes along the Massachusetts waterways that Thoreau describes, his philosophical ponderings venture from the personal to the national to the universal. Many readers will tease out something for themselves, likely disregarding the rest. If, on the surface, A Week is a naturalists account of the plant and animal life and scenery of the river, it is also a documentary of his thoughts and values. Now we are free to take in some of the scenery and completely ignore others—Thoreau is not an authoritarian telling us to “Look at that tree!” In the same way we are free to completely ignore some of his philosophy. It does not seem to me to be a system that requires unification and strict method for the observer. Nature has certain rules and principles governing how things work. Thoreau’s philosophy has that as well. In neither case, are we required to know what those rules are to appreciate the beauty before us. A Week is an ideal book to read on a day when you promise yourself to do nothing. Maybe it needs to be read in that way. I had trouble getting into it before because I was thinking about what to say about it. I came back to it a bit hung over, bored and uninspired and its treasures opened up before me.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was Henry David Thoreau’s first book. It was written alongside Walden while he was living at Walden Pond. It was published in 1849, almost a decade after the trip that it supposedly documents. It was a disappointment. Emerson did not promote the book to Thoreau’s disappointment. Of the original 1,000 books, Thoreau took back 706 of them. So, it is fair to say that Thoreau was largely neglected at this time. A few years later, Walden will be much more successful. Of course, Thoreau is not making a living from his writing and works various jobs throughout his life such as teaching, surveying, and a bit of lecturing.

A Week is broken up into seven chapters, each corresponding to a date. While I cannot even attempt to approach a summary of the work, I can highlight some anarchist themes. Thoreau is commonly identified as an anarchist and is certainly one of the most important figures in the American libertarian traditions. Months ago I looked at his essays and found not only themes of anti-slavery and individualism, but also strong currents of anti-capitalism and even work resistance. The theme of work resistance surprised me because I rarely saw that outside of a fully industrial, post-scarcity economy. Thoreau was not like Kropotkin, he was suspicious of industrialization and technology. His argument against industrial regimen of work was rooted in his effort to preserve individualism in the face of a homogenizing society. Anyway, let’s see what A Week contributes to my growing literary arsenal of anarchism.

At times Thoreau seems to hack the promethean spirit of early America, a belief in progress and the potential of the human mind to accomplish great deeds, while also sabotaging some of the clearest images of that progress. He questions the application of that promethean spirit.

Instead of the Scythian vastness of the Billerica night, and its wild musical sounds, we were kept awake by the boisterous sport of some Irish laborers on the railroad, wafted to us over the water, still unwearied and unresting on this seventh day, who would not have done with whirling up and down the track with every increasing velocity and still reviving shouts, till late in the night. [Notice that the exploitation of labor and the violation of nature are two sides of the same process for Thoreau.] One sailor was visited in his dreams this night by the Evil Destinies, and all those powers that are hostile to human life, which constrain and oppress the minds of men, and make their path seem difficult and narrow, and beset with dangers, so that the most innocent and worthy enterprises appear insolent and a tempting of fate, and the gods go not with us. But the other happily passed a serene and even ambrosial or immortal night, and his sleep was dreamless, or only the atmosphere of pleasant dreams remained, a happy natural sleep until the morning; and his cheerful spirit soothed and reassured his brother, for whenever they meet, the Good Genius is sure to prevail. (94)

In this second part, Thoreau details the two sides of this coin, labeling them the Evil Destinies and the Good Genius. It is the tension between these two sides of the American spirit that come as close as anything can to being a theme of the book.

As in the opening quote, Thoreau consistently uses the language of freedom and oppression. I included that one because it suggest the logic of the liberal state in a certain way. Like nature, the liberal state gives the illusion of autonomy and freedom. And in the same way that the industrial frontier is just 12 years away from shattering the myth that nature’s laws can be overcome, so is the jackbooted nature of the state always just one crisis from being exposed. Thoreau is perhaps most interested in the tension between freedom nature provides and the unavoidable laws of nature and the pull of society. “Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw. There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything else, until civilization becomes pathetic. A highly cultivated man,—all whose bones can be bent! Whose heavenborn virtues are but good manners!” (45–46)

Thoreau’s critique of religion is libertarian to the core. A major theme of “Sunday,” the second day of the “week,” is that religions are products of their societies and reinforce the needs and assumptions of that civilization. A hierarchical society, while have a hierarchical god. A terrified society will have gods that terrify them. Thoreau seems to take from this two conclusions. The first is that people should not take the Bible very seriously, pointing out that it does not have much to teach that is valuable or unknown and that it is also bad poetry. “Examine your authority. Even Christ, we fear, had his scheme, his conformity to tradition, which slightly vitiates his teaching. He had not swallowed all formulas. He preached some mere doctrines.” (57) The second conclusion extends from this and suggests that we should create religious traditions that work for ourselves. Is he predicting William James? He talks about a wood-chopper who may find little of practical value in the New Testament. His goodness and conscience is not derived from faith and certainly not organized religion (which is often mocks in the book). “Monday” continues some of the religious perspectives of “Sunday,” where Thoreau takes a special look at the value and limitations of Hinduism and the ancient Greeks. Through this discussion these is the general suggestion that all the different philosophies and religions are windows to the same truth.

Thoreau is constantly worried that the universal truths of nature and humanity (including all that ancient “wisdom” that he gobbles up with only nominal reflection) is doomed to be swept aside and forgotten by the mad rush to industrialization. Even local history, often the topic of A Week, is in danger of being lost. Here is his ideal:

Let a thousand surmises shed some light on this story. We will not be confined by historical, even geological periods which would allow us to doubt of a progress in human affairs. If we rise above this wisdom for a day, we shall expect that this morning of the race, in which it has been supplied with the simplest necessaries, with corn, and wine, and honey, and oil, and fire, and articulate speech, and agricultural and other arts, reared up by degrees from the condition of ants to men, will be succeeded by a day of equally progressive splendor. (127)

Thoreau seems to realize that the world around him is a graveyard of ideas, past ways of living, bits of nature, people, and even entire towns. He is uncomfortable in such a place. At one point he said that has no friends in the graveyard. This again is the two sided coin. The same promethean spirit that Thoreau wants to embrace is responsible for digging a lot of graves.