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Walden (Norton Critical Editions) Paperback – 11 Nov 1992
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Walden is one of the great classics of American letters. It has been somewhat unfortunately tainted by its reputation as the "treehugger's Bible," but this misses the point. Thoreau obviously loved nature and was one of the nation's first environmentalists - indeed, modern day environmentalism can be traced directly to him -, but the core of the book is not a simple stating of nature's virtues. Thoreau lays down nothing less than a philosophy of life. Like "Civil Disobedience," Walden preaches the virtues of individual liberty and the importance of Man over State. Thoreau raises some staggeringly deep existential questions: If a man does not depend on the State but still resides within its boundaries, need he pledge allegiance? Need he pay taxes? Thoreau tells us how to get the most out of life by living simply. Indeed, much like Rousseau, he seemed to basically believe that the true essence and spirit of man resides in the state of nature. He assures us that, if all lived as simply as he did at Walden, there would be very little theft, crime, violence, envy, or jealousy. He urges us all to live our own lives as we see fit, neither depending on or heeding others, and to avoid merely becoming another mindless drone in conformist society.
"Resistance to Civil Government" - or "Civil Disobedience," as it became known - is an essential part of American literature, culture, and history. Even more remarkably, it is undeniable proof that great literature can have a real effect on the world even long after it is written and ignored. The essay is world famous as the founding text of civil disobedience, i.e., non-violent protest, and its effect on such luminaries as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King was profound, thus sealing its immortality. This alone makes it essential for all.
However, it is easy to forget that the essay is a masterpiece in itself. Essentially Thoreau's highly individual expression of his mentor Emerson's self-reliance doctrine applied to government, it has a wealth of depth and nuance despite its brevity. The words are few but the implications endless; it has enough food for proverbial thought to last a lifetime. The gist is very clear, but the implications have spoken very differently to many different people. The work's nature - and Thoreau's generally - is such that it and he are championed by everyone from neocons to libertarians to liberals, and the truly notable thing is that all are justified. This underscores the importance of reading the essay for ourselves.
Its main query is "What does the individual owe the state?," the answer being a resounding "Nothing." Thoreau takes the maxim that the government that governs least governs best to its logical conclusion by wishing for one that governs not at all - a brave wish very few have seriously dared to make or even conceive. He makes a highly principled stand for individual rights and autonomy, arguing very persuasively that people should be able to go about their business without interference. This of course sounds very much like current libertarians, and their position has indeed hardly ever been better argued. Many related and implied issues - protests against taxation, conscription, etc. - also seem to support them. However, it is important to remember that the essay's crux and most famous section - Thoreau's account of a night spent in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax because he did not want to support war or slavery - was and is immensely liberal. Few issues can be more central to current liberalism than an anti-war stance, and slavery was the era's great liberal cause. All this must be kept firmly in mind amid the many attempts to reduce Thoreau to a current party platform. He was at once too simple and too complex for this and would not have suffered himself to be thus reduced; nor does the essay justify it.
Integral as all this is, the work's core point is arguably a new self-reliance argument above and beyond immediate practical considerations. Thoreau certainly had a practical, political streak, especially compared to relative idealists like Emerson, but he thought individuality more sacred than anything. He articulated this more fully elsewhere, but it is very present here. His work is thus in many ways the best kind of self-help material - and, unlike the mass of current self-help tripe littering bookshelves, is intellectually and even aesthetically pleasing. Thoreau was the most thoroughly local writer that can be imagined, but his willingness to look deep inside himself for the eternal truths present in all people has made him an inspiration to millions and millions of people from across the political spectrum and indeed the world. This essay is a major part of his legacy and thus one of the very few works that literally everyone should read. Few can be the same afterward, and it will change many lives; it is nothing less than one of the most important documents ever written, and its value simply cannot be exaggerated.
This collection is an excellent primer for those new to Thoreau, and those who have not already done so should open their minds to him immediately - and once done, they will never be closed again.