Walden and Civil Disobedience
By Henry David Thoreau
Penguin Classics (1983)
Introduction and Endnotes by Michael Meyer
Self-described as a “mystic, transcendalist,* and natural philosopher to boot,” Thoreau published Civil Disobedience in 1849 and Walden in 1854. Both are works of social criticism. Surprisingly most of his critiques of mid-19th century American society ae still applicable to 21st century post industrial capitalism.
In Civil Disobedience, for example, he maintains that a “standing government” is as dangerous to true democracy as a “standing army.” He is particular critical of slavery and the war against Mexico (opposed by the majority of his contempories), which he describes as “the work of a few individuals using the standing government as their tool.”
He also asserts that voting is not enough when men of conscience oppose the “wickedness” government carries out in their name. He argues that people are obliged to transgress unjust laws “rather than waiting until we persuade the majority to amend them.” He adds that [jail] “is the only house in a slave state that a free man can abide with honor.”
In July 1846 Thoreau was arrested for failing to pay his poll tax, owing to his refusal to recognize the authority of a government “which buys and sells men, women and children at the door of the senate house.” He only spent one night in jail, after an acquaintance “interfered” and paid his tax for him.
I was unaware, prior to reading Walden, that Thoreau also popularized the concept of voluntary poverty. The philosophy he elaborates in describing his two years in the woods at Walden Pond is highly critical of the upper middle class society he was born into. He observes that a “laboring man has no time for true integrity – no time for anything but to be a machine.”
He views his time at Walden Pond – where he built his own cabin and furniture and grew most of his food – as an experiment to help him reduce his life to the absolute basic necessities and the most expedient way of procuring.
He asserts the wealthy classes spend so much time cluttering their lives with useless luxuries that they lose their ability to think clearly about what they really believe him. He also decries the lack of freedom associated with the accumulation of material wealth: “Luxury enervates and destroys nations which have accumulated dross but can’t get rid of it . . . [they] have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”
He’s also high critical of what he describes as the “factory system” – which is “not meant to ensure mankind is well and honestly clad but for corporations to get enriched.”
*Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s in the eastern region of the United States. The movement was a reaction to and protest against the general state of intellectualism and spirituality in American society.