I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Audacious Freedom of Henry David Thoreau, Or, To Stand Alone


by Kristen Bialik
Oct. 10, 2011

In an age where not having a Facebook profile seemingly borders on misanthropy, the kind of self-restraint and purposeful isolation done at Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau is indeed an anomaly. When mobile networks fit in our pockets, when friendship is quantified, and when conversations are analyzed for buzzwords aimed only at targeting ads and commodities back at us, it seems that, even in our solitude, there is no means of escape from the pervasive buying and selling of our eyes, our time, and our relationships. iTunes and Amazon have algorithms that tell us what we like based on our histories and those decided to be “like us.” No seeking necessary. We are self-herders, cattle readily branded by brands. Separation in this connected and interconnected world often seems impossible.

While we seem especially yoked to technology and modern comforts today, Henry David Thoreau’s two-year experiment in separation was no less challenging or unusual in the 1840s than it would be today. He lived alone, in a cabin built by his own hands for a mere $28, subsisted largely on vegetables he cultivated himself, and provided, with some help from family and friends, his own necessities. When Walden was published nearly 10 years later, its reception was meager at best. The world did not yet understand, and still forgets, that fulfillment can be found in simplicity, that the good life is not synonymous with excess.

Throughout his time at Walden and throughout his life, Thoreau exemplified the ultimate kind of freedom, a life unencumbered by societal norms, unjust laws, and the hindrances of so-called luxuries. He questioned freely as a means to thinking and living freely. Never one to fall for the bandwagon fallacy, he operated as an individual steadfast in his beliefs and sense of purpose. In Walden, Thoreau writes:

"The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man — you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind — I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that."

In a country that prides itself on individual freedoms, true individuality is often met with rebuke. Too often the strengths of our ideas are measured solely by the quantity of nodding heads and conviction is found, likewise, not in the certitude of deep thought but in the safety net of a strong group backing. As such, the greatest minds are usually met with the greatest resistance, or at the very least, confusion. In such a climate, it takes great courage to bear the slings of critics, to be the shield to your own ideas.

Thoreau lived uncompromisingly by the personal truths that defined his ideals and identity. He saw no purpose for the whipping rod when working as a schoolmaster and for this breach of the established protocol, the headmaster criticized Thoreau’s performance. As an honest worker, Thoreau would not abandon the duties of a position for which he is being paid, so he randomly pulled a half dozen students from the class and flogged them. Once he had fulfilled this obligation, however, he promptly resigned. If whipping students was standard protocol, Thoreau would remove himself from the system that facilitated iti. If it didn’t gel with Thoreau, he took no part in it.

Vehemently opposed to slavery, Thoreau had for several years refused to pay his poll tax on the grounds that he would not provide any funds used to capture and return fugitive slaves. For this act of defiance, an act that would eventually lead to the essay known as “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau spent a night in jailii. What is imprisonment if not a shackling of ideas meant to wither away in a cell? Prison is a place designed to reinforce the idea that you are wrong, the system is right, and that your actions should be readjusted accordingly in order to rejoin the “freedom” offered by the system. Thoreau, however, does not believe in systems; he believes in truths, many of which were strengthened by the reflection and isolation of his own small space on Walden Pond. Such conditions could not stamp out Thoreau’s resolveiii. On his stay behind bars Thoreau writes,

“I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar … I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations. As they could not reach me they resolved to punish my body; just as boys, as they cannot come against some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was as timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons … I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.”

As the forefather of the ever-burgeoning green movement, the philosophy and writings of Thoreau have seen resurgence of late. Though widely misunderstood in his time, Thoreau’s journals greatly influenced Aldo Leopold’s ideas of conservation as a “state of harmony between men and land” and an extension of ethics. Thoreau’s seminal writing inspired John Muir’s urging of President Roosevelt to protect Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Mt. Rainier as National Parks. Established in 1916, the National Park Service now maintains 395 national parks, preserving 84 million acres of land and 4.5 million acres of oceans, lakes, and reservoirs. Over one hundred and fifty years later, people are finally beginning to share Thoreau’s concern over the mass spread of industrialization, urbanization, and accompanying decimation of the earth.

Yet in many ways, Thoreau’s way of life remains counter to our instincts. It’s not easy to take on the burnens of going against the grain, and even harder to do so on one’s own. But if there’s anything Thoreau believed in, and is proof of, it’s the power of individual action, the ability of a single mind to be a cleaver cutting deep into the questions of the world, and the ability to live deliberately a life worth living.

References:

The Walden Woods Project

The Thoreau Project

The Disarming Honesty of Henry David Thoreau” by Frank Chodorov

The Thoreau Reader, a project in cooperation with the Thoreau Society

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau

The National Park Service website

The Project Gutenberg access to Walden
Notes:

i When Thoreau perceived wrong, he would create a way to right it. After leaving the school and corporeal punishment behind, he and his brother later opened an alternative school in 1838 that introduced many unorthodox pedagogical approaches, such as nature walks and visits to local businesses that baffled teachers of the time.

ii It’s clear Thoreau intended to make a much longer statement behind bars when he refused the constable’s offer to pay his bail, but a relative paid the it and future taxes, releasing a furious and foiled Thoreau the next morning.

iii “Civil Disobedience” is often treated as Thoreau’s final word on anti-slavery movement. However Thoreau continued to be deeply involved in the abolitionist cause (though not its organizations). He continued to write essays, speak publicly, and personally escort refugees to the Underground Railroad through Concord. Supporting even means of violence against the state, Thoreau writes in “Slavery in Massachusetts” that “The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free.”

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.