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Reading Thoreau in the 21st century

Updated on June 26, 2011

I found myself avoiding reading Henry David Thoreau for a very long time. It seemed that he was considered to be the quintissential American writer and thinker, and so (irrationally, perhaps) I thought he would have very conventional ideas. I could not have been further from the truth. He was a rebel in his own time, which makes it all the more ironic that he is held in such high regard today.

In point of fact Thoreau was hardly read by Americans while he was alive. He died when he was just 45, little known to his fellow citizens. But I am sure that Thoreau himself did not get too hung up on his lack of fame. He lived for himself, and he lived in the way that he wanted to. As many know from the book Walden, he decided to leave his native town of Concord, MA and live by himself in the woods by a pond. He built his own house, planted beans, and spent his days observing the beauty of Nature around him. It was not his aim to glorify Nature or his own survival skills as a primeval man. In effect, this "project" was a protest against the materialistic world he lived in.

It makes you think of what is going on in our world now. We have just gone through a period of extreme materialism and greed, where it was the dream of many to become wealthy enough to buy possessions and gain satisfaction in life through owning things. We sought the "American Dream," but though that the dream was happiness through wealth alone. Thoreau says, you don't need all that. Basically, all you need is the clothes on your back, a decently comfortable place to stay, and a mind of your own. I think that Walden is a very good book to read for people who are trying to reevaluate their lives in these times of economic hardship. It seems to me that many people are reflecting on the carefree way in which they lived their lives, pursuing things that do not necessarily make one happy.

Another correlation between Thoreau's time (in the mid-1800's) is his thoughts about war. At the time, America was mired in the Mexican war, which you may or may not know was hotly protested by many Americans. It immediately reminds you of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have sent our troops to a foreign land to assert American power. In the case of Mexico, it was for territorial expansion and in the Middle East it is for oil and influence (though some would say it was to "protect our freedom.") In his famous essay "Civil Disobedience" which was later to become a model for Martin Luther King and Ghandi, he says: "There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them." It reminds me of what is going on today. Should we support the war just because our government has incited it? Our government cannot take care of its own people any more because it has overextended itself overseas in unnecessary wars.

Thoreau teaches people to think for themselves. He says, do not just blindly follow laws. Question what is considered "the norm" and try to change what is "unjust." He does not advocate violence, but instead independent thinking, which when combined collectively has enormous power to change the state of affairs.

If you ever get a chance, you should read "Civil Obedience." It is very moving. It has passages that assert individual thinking like this one: "(The State) is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest." You can see why it inspired great men like Ghandi and MLK. These people chose to take the harder route toward their achievements, but they were ultimately rewarded by their place in history.

I'll add one final quote to end this short article on a great figure in 19th century America: "The rich man . . is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it." This is a sharp warning that men find it difficult to make moral choices when they are ruled by their position in society and wealth. How true and scary this observation is! Read his books!


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