In parts Walden is blatantly irritating, I’m sure someone out there has made the argument that Thoreau is the original hipster *pause* ok, I just googled “thoreau the original hipster” and can now say conclusively that, yes, that claim has been made, and with good reason. The chapter “The Bean Field” is about as fun to read as listening to a beardsy, PBR-drinking, American Spirits-smoking, stereotype tell you about their fixed gear bike. But I can forgive Thoreau for this in the same way that I can forgive Nietzsche for suggesting, “When thou goest to woman, take thy whip.” Even geniuses can’t get it all right.
Like Nietzsche, Thoreau makes up for his occasional self-important ramblings with sections that are so on point and laced with humour that you can nearly hear the smile on his face:
A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it…It’s best to avoid the beginnings of evil.
These amusing bits of commentary on our relationship to stuff are fairly uncontroversial. The poet and and naturalist in him makes him accessible and non-threatening to even an avid consumer, but it’s not surprising that his ideas came to life, often radically, in the lives of people like Emma Goldman. And even in Walden, he occasionally alludes to how his anti-consumerist ideas would play out.
In an accusation that is even more biting today in a time when fast fashion is the norm and Ikea is a normal way to spend a Sunday, Thoreau places the blame for extreme poverty on the shoulders of the middle-class consumers that pity the poor but continue to fund the system that “graciously provides” them with the thankless jobs that keep them poor:
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.
Of course, when Thoreau wrote this, the misery of factory work was still happening in major metropolitan areas in the USA. Today we enjoy the luxury of never needing to see the faces of the people we hold in slavery by our lifestyles. What a treat.
Like Seneca On the Shortness of Life, or any philosopher or writer that sees people for what they are, many of the observations made by Thoreau seem to only be growing more true. In a passage defending the value of spending time alone, it’s hard to imagine that he isn’t criticising a platform that ensures you will never need to miss a single inane thought from that weird guy you went to highschool with:
Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other, we meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that musty cheese that we are.
What a wonderful reminder that our friends on Facebook aren’t actually bad people. We may just need to spend less time exposing ourselves to their musty cheese and them to ours.
Also like Seneca, Thoreau devotes a lot of ink to questioning why we devote so much of our lives to obsessively preparing for the future:
This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me on the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet.
And settles on education and the pursuit of wisdom as being a far more worthwhile way to spend one’s time:
The olden Egyptian or Hindu philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision.
But it’s not just education or the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake. Thoreau believed that ideas needed to be validated through action. The two years he spent at Walden Pond were an experiment in how his ideas might play out when they meet the smacking reality of life, a tradition that started with Civil Disobedience. It’s an uncomfortable thought.
The internet has an uncanny way of making us all feel unjustifiably smarter, a bit more smug about how much we know. But the purpose of knowledge isn’t the random accumulation of fun facts, beliefs , or new ideas. What Thoreau knew was that all of our lives are essentially a presentation of our internal philosophies. An idea that remains only an idea doesn’t make the owner of that thought smarter, it’s only in the application that we stop being consumers of information and belief systems and start knowing:
To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.