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Henry David Thoreau’s Radical Optimism

The political vision of 'Walden' is still essential reading

Cbaile19/ Wikimedia Commons

Henry David Thoreau was callous to others’ misfortune, puritanical, misanthropic, adolescent, hypocritical, “as parochial as he was egotistical,” and morally despotic, according to the New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz. Given all of that, Schulz ought to praise Thoreau for hiding out in the woods instead of making a nuisance of himself in the town square. 

But in fact, in her recent essay eviscerating Thoreau’s politics and character, Schulz is most critical of Thoreau’s preference for solitude. On her view, Thoreau’s moral program of deliberate, simple living is not only impractical, but unpracticed, as Thoreau was not nearly as independent as he makes himself out to be in Walden. As is well known, Thoreau was hardly isolated in his pondside cabin, with neighbors all around and his mother’s house a twenty-minute walk away. Schulz argues that in trying to realize “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people,” Thoreau offers readers nothing we could use to build a society. For this reason, she laments his canonization as a democratic hero.

Schulz is right that Walden is “more revered than read,” but she gets Thoreau’s ethics and politics wrong. Above all, she misses that Thoreau’s political aims rest upon a radically optimistic assessment of the intellectual and spiritual heights every one of us is capable of. Thoreau’s point is that if people could strip away unnecessary consumption, they would free themselves and each other from soul-eating labor, and then begin to realize their higher potential. We would be a nation of philosopher-kings, truly capable of pursuing the common good instead of immediate self-interest.

To read Schulz’s account, you would think that Thoreau’s asceticism was an end in itself, that his “account of how to live reads less like an existential reckoning than like a poor man’s budget, with its calculations of how much to eat and sleep crowding out questions of why we are here and how we should treat one another.” But getting rid of your stuff is only the necessary first step to finding metaphysical or moral answers.

Thoreau summarized his theory of alienation, developed around the same time as Karl Marx’s, by saying that “men have become the tools of their tools.” When you own something—it can equally be a doormat, a retirement account, or a sterling reputation—it often comes to own you as it demands attention and maintenance, adding to your duties. When you lose possessions, you gain time, energy, and focus that can be spent elsewhere. Long before Marie Kondo wrote her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Thoreau was making a “sacrament” of his periodic purges.

By consuming less, Thoreau also thought he could help undermine slavery and American imperialism. As imperialism and even slavery are not quite behind us, even 170 years later, Thoreau’s critique of the morality of our consumption remains trenchant. Whose freedom do we steal in our thoughtless quest for security, property, or a good price on dog food? Thoreau’s abstinence from coffee makes him suspect in Kathryn Schulz’s eyes, but in forswearing this luxury, Thoreau limited both his expenses and his indirect economic support of slavery on Brazilian plantations.

Despite Thoreau’s desire to live in greater harmony with nature, he also sees nature as an alien and unwelcome force imposing on him the regrettable need to keep warm and fed. (He envies furred species that can get by without fuel.) To keep himself alive, then, he must labor, and in doing so, he runs the risk of building bad habits and stunting his intellect. As Adam Smith had lamented, the skills that a laborer gains through repeating a single action countless times at work were “acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues,” making the laborer a bad citizen.

Thoreau feels that he must farm beans as a cash crop, but he finds that he also enjoys the work. This is why it is dangerous, an activity “which, continued too long, might have become a dissipation.” In the immediate pleasure of hoeing the beans, being productive, and ultimately making money, Thoreau would quite understandably feel proud. Insofar as he inherited the Protestant ethic, he might seek greater pride in greater productivity in the following season. But then, imperceptibly, he would “have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven,” become a full-time bean farmer, and allowed his higher aims to dissipate.

Those aims, as Walden makes plain, are to observe the world with unparalleled acuity, to contemplate, and to write (Schulz concedes that Thoreau was a great nature writer). To do these things is to follow his “genius,” a sort of divine spirit that speaks to each of us in our peculiarity. The chance to act in accordance with one’s genius is what freedom is for; it makes possible “a higher life than we fell asleep from,” and grants access to the transcendent. The great tragedy of the many who “lead lives of quiet desperation” is that for them, the music of their genius is drowned out by “mechanical nudgings” and “factory bells” that demand immediate attention.

It strikes me as charitable to remind others that higher ways of life are available to all, including to the materially poor and uneducated. The Canadian woodcutter who appears in Walden as a simple, animalistic philosopher, and whose company Thoreau clearly enjoys, convinces him “that there might be men of genius in the lowest grades of life, however permanently humble and illiterate.” While Thoreau thinks that the immediacy of the man’s thinking holds back the strength of his insight, he does believe that the woodcutter’s thoughts were “more promising than a merely learned man’s.”

This brings up questions about the role of education in a democracy. In higher education today, we who advocate on behalf of the liberal arts are stuck between two contrary arguments: on the one hand, that studying the humanities can be a great career move and, on the other, that they show a way beyond careerism. This leads to dilemmas about what sort of education might be best for students from poor families. Should they be encouraged to study Greek and Latin in college, despite the low starting salaries typical of classics majors? If so, then are those who encourage them complicit in the graduates’ economic immobility? If not, then are we perpetuating the elitist myth that the classics, or philosophy, or art history belong solely to the rich?

Questions like these are more political than they sound. A Thoreauvian answer to them would be hard to accept, but it would take seriously the full dignity of each person and the full range of aspiration that ought to be available to each of us. It’s too costly, both morally and politically, to offer the poor strictly vocational training and push them to work their way to prosperity. That is in fact the death of democracy, because citizens learn political quiescence on the job.

If people like the Canadian woodcutter had more leisure, they might remain poor, but they would be better able to cultivate mind and spirit and insist that others be similarly liberated. Winning this leisure would entail the revolution in values that Thoreau calls for: to see material deprivation as less shameful than spiritual deprivation, and to see work as a necessary evil that ought to be limited instead of as our noblest activity. American capitalism would not survive such a revolution.

The solitude Thoreau attempted at Walden Pond is surely not the only, or best, way to realize a democracy of self-transcendence on the national scale. It takes communities and institutions to sustain each other’s aspiration. Even in quitting Concord for the cabin, Thoreau may have realized this. In a moment of self-deprecating humor that escaped Schulz’s eye, he admits that what he really wanted was a cushy job as a public official. It was only after the townsfolk failed to provide one that he began to look “more exclusively than ever to the woods, where I was better known.”