Contemplating Walden

It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them…

I’m only partway through Walden, but I wanted to post on it before Tea With Transcendentalists is officially over. (Hopefully I will finish in the next week or so.)

First, as of the one-third point, I’m not enjoying Walden as much as “Civil Disobedience.” I don’t dislike it, I’m just not as enchanted. I think this is because where “Civil Disobedience” felt to me universal and pertinent, Walden seems more personal to Thoreau. It is his story, his experiment. I’m having a hard time reading his intentions—does he intend a course of simplification, reflection, and mental improvement for everyone, or only for those of his temperament? Does he really mean for all men to build their own home?

This suggests that Thoreau believed his audience limited:

…I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, 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.

While this seems to indicate that he thought his ideas applied to all:

Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?

Honestly, I’m not sure how seriously to take his words, although I lean towards a less literal understanding. If his intentions are that everyone should follow in his footsteps, I don’t think it is at all practical—although my impression of the Transcendentalists is not one of practicality—if for no other reason than that not all people are inclined to reflection or continual mental edification. Nor, I think, does it seem likely that general society would have achieved all that it has if we all did the minimum possible for survival. While there is plenty of room for debate over the positives vs. negatives of various aspects of “civilization” (to use Thoreau’s word), there are few who would argue that improved health care hasn’t been beneficial, for instance.

I’m also completely flummoxed by this section:

As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. Moreover, I have tried it fairly, and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.

Thoreau certainly seems to be saying that he doesn’t do anything charitable or “good” and at some points further on I thought he might even be saying it was of no benefit for anyone to do good! Perhaps I am misreading (or not?) or perhaps he is simply trying to get across the same message we’ve been hearing at church lately: don’t give money to people in the parking lot. This is not because we should be cold and callous, but because the people asking are most likely a) cons or b) will just spend it on drugs or alcohol. (Instead we are told to direct them to appropriate agencies, with brochures at all the church entrances.) Is this what Thoreau is saying, that too often good intentions are abused by those with bad intent, or does his belief in self-reliance prompt him to think that no aid should be given regardless?

On the other hand, I love Thoreau’s call for:

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.

and his pointing out of a too often forgotten truth:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.

Although I could approach this from an environmental standpoint and say we’re using too many resources, blah, blah, blah (and one of the books I read this fall did call Thoreau an early environmentalist), it is actually the entire idea of simplicity that attracts me. How many dishes or pans or decorations or clothes (but don’t you dare say books!) do I, does anyone, really need? How busy do I really need to be, how rushed my life? One of my quiet rebellions against the typical American work environment (or at least in architecture) is how rushed, how harried everything always is, always a deadline, always the urgency, yet we have created our own hurry, our own problems.

I do however, disagree with the idea of removing all ornament, not least because I love very old, very ornamented buildings. Reading Thoreau’s thoughts on architecture, it seemed to me that he anticipated the Modernist architects, and Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more.” I don’t know if they were influenced by his thinking, however, but they certainly removed all ornament and gave us rectangular boxes and plain styles.

My favorite chapter so far has been “Reading.” I would imagine this is not an uncommon reaction among readers! I copied down many quotes, as there are so many gems in support of reading as a pastime. Granted, Thoreau is one of that strain of readers who feels only the best and greatest books are worth our time and has nothing good to say about the light entertainments favored by his fellow Concordian. If he could but see what is published now! As a lover of the classics, (which admittedly include books that weren’t even yet published when Thoreau was writing) I do appreciate much of what he has to say, however, and especially those lines which praise reading in general.

Some favorite quotes so far:

  • “And pray what more can a reasonable man desire, in peaceful times, in ordinary noons, than a sufficient number of ears of green sweet corn boiled, with the addition of salt?” [My favorite summer meal!]
  • “Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.”
  • “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.”
  • “Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?”
  • “To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”
  • “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;—not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”
  • “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

Some random observations:

  • Walden is one of those excellent examples of why we should all read (if not study) books such as the Bible and the ancient Greeks and Romans. Thoreau includes a ton of references/quotes, and I don’t get all of them. Fortunately, Aeneid and Iliad are on the reading list next year.
  • Do you remember my observation of all those semi-colons in Castle Wolfenbach? Apparently writers used semi-colons differently in the 18th and early 19th centuries, because Thoreau really likes them too, often paring them with other punctuation marks.

I am reading Walden as part of the Tea with Transcendentalist reading month. Please see the comments on this post for other participants.

Completed: “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”

“Resistance to Civil Government” (later titled “On the Duty  of Civil Disobedience”)
Henry David Thoreau

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.

Even had it not been for the currently on-going Transcendentalist Month, I would have likely picked up “Civil Disobedience” in light of various current events. From Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street, the news this year seems to be filled with modern-day acts of civil resistance (and sometimes not so civil) to established government systems, inspiring my desire to read the original source. Thoreau’s essay is curious in that it is both very much of its time—referencing numerous current events and opinions—and continuously relevant in the more than 160 years since its initial publication. Figures as various as Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were all influenced by its contents and its ideas of non-violent resistance continue to hold sway.

There are two interesting aspects to Thoreau’s line of thought. The first is that he appears to be advocating against any government at all, or at least a very limited one. His belief in the inherent goodness of men (apparently a characteristic of Transcendentalism) is one I find naively idealistic. Perhaps I am too cynical, but from what I see of human nature, we need at least a governing authority to keep us from doing harm to each other or trampling on each other’s rights—the extent and nature of which being, of course, up for debate. From Thoreau’s belief, however, sprang his view that man could eventually do without government.

The second aspect is his call for action against—or rather, separation from—the existing government as a form of protest against what he saw as the biggest injustices of his day: the Mexican-American War and slavery. Thoreau felt it wasn’t enough to merely say “I am opposed to slavery” but that the moral man must take action against it. He rejected change by way of established methods, that is the constitutional process, in part because of the slowness of this path, in part because of the extent of the injustice, and instead advocated for actively withholding a tax (in this case, the poll tax) as a means of protest. If enough men would participate in this protest, he felt that the government would have no choice but to change the laws.

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?  Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

It is this second aspect that seems the more applicable to our society. We may look at his essay and think that we are doing so much better now: we no longer have institutionalized slavery—but slavery, even in the US, still exists, most commonly in the sex trade, and there are many other social injustices still present across the world, from unfair labor practices to human rights violations. I’m sure at least some of the Occupy protestors are arguing about injustices inherent in our political-economic system, not to mention the protests themselves are acts of civil disobedience.

It is easy to read “Civil Disobedience” as advocating for anti-government action in all (any) cases of perceived injustice or violations of our conscience, but this, I think, is a misinterpretation of Thoreau’s essay, and is rather, what one of my professors referred to as taking an argument to its “illogical conclusion.” Thoreau is not speaking of the everyday injustice—and most certainly not mere dissatisfaction with government policies—but the more harmful, broader injustices. In his essay, Thoreau makes clear that he would not have protested the British tax on goods which precipitated the Boston Tea Party, but rather would have done without if he didn’t wish to pay the tax. In contrast, slavery impacted not just the conveniences of life but the entirety of the lives of those enslaved. It is not about individual, selfish dissatisfaction, but the broader social good.

If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it.

It should also be noted that Thoreau understood and accepted the consequences of breaking the laws, however unjust he perceived them. In fact, he embraced the idea of imprisonment: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Most striking to me in the essay is the idea of the need for action by everyone who sees injustice or wrong. Thoreau condemns nearly all of us, for I think almost all have seen an example, large or small, corporate or individual, of an injustice that we have not acted upon. It is an uncomfortable reminder, and one which I will be ruminating over for quite some time.

Some additional quotes:

“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.”

“…who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico…”

“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders.”