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.