When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Already a subscriber? Log in .

You've reached your limit of one free article.

Get unlimited access to Worldcrunch

You can cancel anytime .


Exclusive International news coverage

Ad-free experience NEW

Weekly digital Magazine NEW

9 daily & weekly Newsletters

Access to Worldcrunch archives

Free trial

30-days free access, then $2.90
per month.

Annual Access BEST VALUE

$19.90 per year, save $14.90 compared to monthly billing.save $14.90.

Subscribe to Worldcrunch

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.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Why Poland's Break With Ukraine Weakens All Enemies Of Russia — Starting With Poland

Poland’s decision to stop sending weapons to Ukraine is being driven by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party's short-term electoral calculus. Yet the long-term effects on the world stage could deeply undermine the united NATO front against Russia, and the entire Western coalition.

Photo of ​Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Lutsk, Ukraine, on July 9

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Lutsk, Ukraine, on July 9

Bartosz T. Wieliński


WARSAW — Poland has now moved from being the country that was most loudly demanding that arms be sent to Ukraine, to a country that has suddenly announced it was withholding military aid. Even if Poland's actions won't match Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s words, the government has damaged the standing of our country in the region, and in NATO.

“We are no longer providing arms to Ukraine, because we are now arming Poland,” the prime minister declared on Polsat news on Wednesday evening. He didn’t specify which type of arms he was referring to, but his statement was quickly spread on social media by leading figures of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

When news that Poland would be withholding arms to Ukraine made their way to the headlines of the most important international media outlets, no politician from PiS stepped in to refute the prime minister’s statement. Which means that Morawiecki said exactly what he meant to say.

The era of tight Polish-Ukrainian collaboration, militarily and politically, has thus come to an end.

Keep reading...Show less

The latest