Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Discussion questions for Thoreau's WALDEN

The following questions were presented for group discussion on Sept. 12:

1. Is Thoreau's vision representative of fundamental American ideals, or is it basically a reaction against them?

2. Is Thoreau primarily "this-worldly" (practical) or is he primarily "other-worldly" (a dreamer)?

3. What is Thoreau's understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community? Does he believe they share a common goal or that they are fundamentally different?

4. Does Thoreau distinguish between the community and the state (government)? If so, what is the difference?

5. Is it possible to achieve the kind of freedom Thoreau was seeking? Is it possible today?


Blogger SMJ said...

Before attempting to answer the first question, we need to establish what values are fundamental to "American life"; moreover, we need to ask whether those values are unique and irreplaceable, or whether they change from one generation to another. Even in early colonial times, prior to the birth of the republic, Americans held different ideas about what kind of society they preferred. Some of these concerns are formally expressed in the Declaration of Independence in such words as "... all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Not everyone in Thoreau's day (nor even in our own) agreed with these basic beliefs. Hence, the schism between the northern and southern states which led to the Civil War.

But aside from issues involving slavery, other differences emerge in the birth of a young republic. The transition from an agrarian, subsistence economy in colonial times to an industrial, consumption based economy fuels a migration from America's farms to the city. A new economy, driven by urban factories and credit financing, accelerates the pace of social change. As investment capital flows into expanding markets, consumer demands rise. With more money to spend, Americans spend even more for goods and services that were not formerly available on rural farms. In time, the advent of electrical power stimulates greater urban development, and the core population of America shifts away from isolated farms to planned urban communities.

In little more than a century, what occurred in America was a fundamental change both in lifestyle and values. The isolated nature of farms, which had once instilled values of frugality, simplicity and self-reliance to its children, gradually yielded to the attractions of urban society. The pursuit of happiness, enshrined in the language of rebellion, began to seem more possible in a city than on a farm. After all, farming always had been a difficult and uncertain enterprise. Perhaps life would be better in town. Thus, many folks abandoned farm life and decided to try their luck in the factory.

Yet some things do not change. The conservative politics of Jeffersonian America still prevailed in the south and the mid-west, and on farms scattered throughout the north. Even by 1854, the year of Walden's publication, a majority of American citizens still believed government's power should be limited and that its ultimate authority must lie with the people; that there is one God who rules over all; and that a man's personal property belongs to him alone and not to some feudal lord or government agency.

The so-called "family values" of American society today were so prevalent in Thoreau's day as to be almost unchallenged. These were the virtues of hard work, privacy, family, honesty, religious faith, and the simplicity and self-reliance of individuals who did not want or need government assistance. These values were perceived as central to American life. And in many respects, these were the very ideas that Thoreau believed were disappearing from American society.

Thoreau's Walden is essentially a casebook on life in a hermitage, for that is the life to which Thoreau aspires. A life devoted to quiet reflection and reading. Or, to put it another way, the life of philosophy. His criticism of wealth and the consumption economy on which capitalism is founded are meant to lead us to a rejection of modern urban life. For a life centered on work and the acquisition of property is for Thoreau a life beneath our humanity. Not that work itself is evil, but a workaholic devotion to one's job to the exclusion of all else is symptomatic of a disease, or as Kierkegaard might put it, " a sickness unto death." Thoreau believes that as we concentrate our energy on the pursuit of wealth and property, we lose all contact with nature, the very substance of what is real and substantial to our life. He is calling for us as Americans and as human beings to return to the basic values of our past, to the very origins of society. He, like Rousseau, believes that in the basic goodness of our nature we have all the resources necessary for successful living. All the instruction we require is to preserve and cherish the idea of simplicity. If we were to reduce our possessions to the minimum, and go about our business simply and honestly (i.e., the "business" of living one day at a time), we would enjoy renewed health and vigor, and feel a greater appreciation for the beauty and truth of the world around us.

Although he certainly would not agree and would probably howl in protest, Thoreau is a reformer. He is a reformer, not in the sense of social welfare reform such as feeding the poor or social security, or various post-Marxian attempts at economic and political reforms, but more like the old Testament prophets. He proclaims the corruption of society and calls for a return to faith, i.e. to a life of simplicity and humility (although he, himself, perhaps is not the best advocate for humility. It is hard to be humble and claim, at the same time, to be in possession of important truths). However, Thoreau's ultimate concern is not with economic prosperity or the passing of better laws, but a fundamental shift in values—i.e., stating publicly what it is, as a people, we ought to value. It is true that Thoreau is less concerned with government than with individual reforms; nevertheless, he is convinced that meaningful social reform will come about when enough individuals do what they ought to be doing; or perhaps, more to the point, refrain from doing what they ought not to be doing.

This style of reform is characterized today as a kind of regimen for self-improvement. But whereas most programs devoted to self-improvement do so with the view of increasing one's happiness, Thoreau is in the soul recovery business. Like the biblical prophets of old, he argues that living virtuously is its own reward, and the serendipitous effect of improving society is but a by-product, not the main intention. The truth is that Thoreau is not much concerned with society at all. At least, not the kind of society that requires an army or navy to engage in wars to expand its territory. In some respects, the kind of society Thoreau has in mind is more akin to those utopian communities where people live harmoniously and keep out of one another's way. A kind of pre-political society without laws jails, or taxation. And to be fair, this view has its antecedents in the small, agrarian models of community favored by the old Jeffersonian party. The idea being that the best government is the least government.

Alas, for Thoreau, once the Articles of Confederation were scrapped in favor of a new Constitution, the small, virtuous society which Thoreau (along with Thomas Paine and others) knew and loved would be forever changed.

9/20/2005 10:44 AM  

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