Thursday, October 26, 2017

Book Write-Up: Walden and Civil Disobedience

I read Walden and Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau.  Both works were in a Signet Classics edition.  There was also an afterword by Perry Miller, with whom I am familiar on account of his work on the Puritans.  Some poems by Thoreau were also in the book.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Walden, of course, is about Thoreau living in a cabin by Walden pond for over a year.  Thoreau was hoping to do business with people near the area, but, more importantly, he was searching for a simpler and more deeply connected life in nature.  A lot of the book is Thoreau’s observation of nature: the animals, the pond in winter, etc.  Did he learn any spiritual lessons from nature?  Well, a snake at the bottom of the pond reminded him of the torpor that human beings are in when it comes to their dull condition.  Perry Miller observes that a bug’s successful attempt to gnaw his way out of wood evoked in Thoreau a feeling of resurrection and immortality.  Most of the book’s account of nature is descriptive rather than spiritually reflective; the final chapter of the book contains more spiritual reflections, though, but they were rather vague.  Thoreau valued being out in nature because of its beauty, and also because he believed that humans were missing something when they separated themselves from nature: when there was a separation between their eating of their food, for example, the the process of gathering and preparing the food.

B.  Thoreau promoted a simpler life.  He even spoke glowingly of the prospect of living in a wooden coffin, though that was not the path that he took!  Notwithstanding his desire for simplicity, he loved to read, specifically classical works in their original language.  He also loved the classics of world religions, such as Hindu and Zoroastrian works.  In one passage, he likens the Christian born again experience to the spiritual experience that a character undergoes in a Zoroastrian work, and he believes that people are missing something when they do not read the Scriptures of non-Christian religions (and, yes, allusions to the Bible abound in his work).  Thoreau wants simplicity, but he also desires reflection and thought, based on works that civilization has produced.  He laments that so many people live boring lives—-he calls them lives of quiet desperation—-such as people whose sole daily task is milking the cow.  One reason that Thoreau went to live in the woods was so that he would not have to work as much.  That may look counter-intuitive: would not a person in the woods, without life’s comforts and amenities, have to work more?  But Thoreau went about the essential tasks of the day and spent the rest of his time reading, enjoying nature, and contemplating.  Thoreau talks at length about a simple man he knew who dwelt in the woods: he admired the man, and perhaps even believed that the man had more spiritually going for him than people in civilization, yet I suspect that Thoreau also thought that the man was missing out on contemplative riches.

C.  Thoreau shares that he never felt lonely out in nature, even when he was alone.  He had his share of human company, such as strangers stopping by to ask him for help or directions.  But he also spent a lot of time apart from human contact, and he relates that he did not feel alone at those times, as he was connected with nature.

D.  Thoreau speaks glowingly of voluntary poverty.  At times, though, he sounds like certain Republicans, saying that some poor people want everything done for them.

E.  In reading Walden, I thought often about the Frasier episode in which Frasier and his family camped out in the woods, carrying journals so they could be like Thoreau.  When Frasier was a child, he read Walden in his cabin on the family camping trip, while the rest of the family was actually out in nature.  That is what I am like: I like to read about things rather than actually experiencing them.  Thoreau was rather critical of people like that: he talked about poets who come out into nature for a spiritual experience, but they do not know nature as well as the trappers, so their experience is incomplete.  I am still like Frasier, but there were occasions when I went outside and looked at the beautiful trees, and I felt less alone, as Thoreau did in the woods.

F. Thoreau’s work on civil disobedience was not entirely what I expected.  My expectation was that Civil Disobedience would be like Plato’s Crito: that Thoreau, like Socrates, would disobey the state when it was wrong, while accepting the legal penalty because of his respect for the state and his recognition of its importance and necessity.  But, actually, Thoreau seemed to have a dimmer view of the state than that.  He recognized its importance, but, overall, he came across as a person who would rather not have anything to do with the state, who would rather live his life and let the state be, hoping it would let him be.  He felt compelled, though, to take a political stand by refusing to pay his taxes to support the Mexican war.  He felt that the United States was challenging Mexico without sufficient cause, and that a paramount reason for the war was the perpetuation of slavery.

G.  Perry Miller’s contribution was inspiring because it was about how Thoreau was considered a failure as a writer during Thoreau’s lifetime, and Thoreau accepted his failure with good humor.  But Thoreau’s works came to be appreciated after Thoreau’s death.

I may have missed important aspects of Thoreau’s work in this my first reading, but I may read the book again, far off into the future.

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