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The Enduring Relevance Of Henry David Thoreau

Walden on the wall
Walden on the wall


Does anyone even read Henry David Thoreau anymore?

Today, July 12, marks the 200th anniversary of the American poet and philosopher's birth. And much is being said and written about him — not all of it flattering. His work is "anecdotal," some say. Or "irrelevant," "juvenile" even.

To answer the initial question, I do. And I can also say that certain key elements of my political outlook — my anarchist streak, and my often misunderstood conservatism — are very much inspired by Thoreau. For me, at least, he's very relevant indeed.

I remember reading Walden for the first time in my teenage years. In it, Thoreau tells his readers about the two years and two months he spent living in the woods, away from "civilization." Like an American version of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Some, interestingly enough, call Walden a juvenile book written for adolescents. This view is superficial and it ignores at least two things. The first is the beauty of Thoreau's prose. Notice how beautiful the mornings are in his writings: "Morning brings back the heroic ages," he wrote. Recall too how accurate his mundane observations are: "Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new." It's the sort of sentence that stays forever imprinted on your mind.

Thanks to Thoreau, I've learned to laugh more quickly at the new fashions than at the old ones, which prevented me from following them with a — here it comes — juvenile enthusiasm. That applies to ideology as well as clothing. Even when something is all the rage, it's still nothing more than a rage.

Thoreau's Cove, Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, circa 1908 — Source: Library of Congress

I also confess that it's because of Thoreau that I've managed to reach the ripe age of 41 without ever wearing a watch. We are slaves of time, but there's no need for us to show off our chains.

The second aspect ignored by superficial readings of Thoreau is that his choice to live near Walden Pond was the expression of a noble desire, one that defines his entire body of work: the desire to be left in peace.

I know only too well that in our infantilized societies, we expect our central authority to intrude in our lives. We don't want the government to be limited to its basic functions; we demand a maximum government, even for the minimal things.

The ideas Thoreau presented in his Civil Disobedience are somewhat different. "That government is best which governs least," he wrote right at the beginning, given the impossibility of having no government at all. The text is partly a condemnation of slavery and war — both promoted by an immoral government. But Thoreau goes further and deals with ever-present, pre-political questions. Does the government override individual conscience? Does this conscience belong to the people only?

I like to read Thoreau in times of confusion.

A century before the devastating wars of the 20th century, Thoreau glimpsed the tragic consequences of this transfer of moral responsibility from the individual to the government. The first consequence was the allocation of abusive power to corruptible men with limited abilities. The second was the transformation of a society of free men, morally free, into an organization of robots that limit themselves to following the orders from above.

When you listen to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann's defense in Jerusalem in 1961 — that he was simply following orders — it's hard not to remember Thoreau's glorious mornings. And the desire of being left in peace is also the desire of protecting our nature.

That doesn't mean I don't have disagreements with my friend Thoreau. I have several actually. I don't share his exalted vision of "civilization." And in my opinion, Thoreau only wrote the way he wrote because he was, first and foremost, a civilized man.

But what really matters lies elsewhere. I like to read Thoreau in times of confusion, just to be reminded of some truths as clear as the waters of Walden Pond: My life is mine; time is in short supply; today's fashions are laughing stocks for the future; sometimes the multitude that matters is the multitude of one single person; political power is necessary, but it's still a necessary evil; and conducting my soul is a task for no politician, no government, no State.

At this moment in history — 200 years after his birth — Henry David Thoreau symbolizes the courage of freedom. Everybody speaks about "freedom" all the time. But there are few who have the sufficient courage to really embrace it. Did you say juvenile? That's funny. I don't know a more demanding author, more indispensable, and yes, more adult than Thoreau.

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