Friday, July 04, 2008

Thoreau and the Fourth of July

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into a one-roomed cabin that he built with his own hands on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau wanted to "meet myself face to face," away from the intrusions of public opinion, government, religion, education and society. His twenty-six months of living in the woods provided him with materials for his masterpiece, Walden. The book is more bracing today than when it was first published and launched the environmental movement that we seem to take for granted.

But more than a paean to nature, Walden instructed us, by the example of its author, to live a meaningful life. It is this aspect of the book that explains its relevance and timelessness. Walden contains paradoxes and contradictions but precisely because of these, Thoreau's observations also ring so true. "I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men get clothing ... since ... the principal object is ... that the corporations may be enriched." "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." "The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveler's cap and all the monkeys in America do the same." "In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high."

Writing of farmers saddled with debt (magnified several thousand times since then, and not just farmers), Thoreau wrote: "With consummate skill he has set his trap with a hair springs to catch comfort and independence, and then, as he turned away got his own leg into it." "And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him." Is there any more powerful, and poignant, summary of the havoc wrought on families throughout America by subprime and exotic mortgages than what Thoreau observed of his neighbors in Concord over a century and a half ago?

Yet Thoreau would also have lauded the progress America has made since Walden. A fierce opponent of slavery, he would have approved where America is today in relation to race. The democratic nominee for the president of the United States today is an African-American with a heritage that spans the globe. And while our materialism and the often toxic popular culture would have saddened him, he would also have taken heart in the green movement begun by grassroots organizations to save the planet from catastrophic climate changes. Yet there is also no doubt that the author of Civil Disobedience would have been outraged by the Bush administration's war of choice in Iraq, illegal detention of both US citizens and foreign nationals, and use of torture and spying on Americans in violation of the Fourth Amendment. A disobedience movement, civil or otherwise, would have been a certainty for Thoreau in such circumstances.

As we celebrate America's 232nd anniversary of independence, we feel the urgent need of a Thoreau who can motivate us to simplify our lives, persuade us not to become the tools of our tools, to recognize that "our inventions are wont to be pretty toys (Internet, iPod, cell phone, take your pick) which distract our attention from serious things. They are but impoved means to an unimproved end." We need a Thoreau to remind us that our greatest skill may lie in wanting but little, that "superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only," that we are "rich only in proportion to the number of things we can afford to leave alone." As we reflect on the challenging words in the Declaration of Independence, we should also set aside some time today to reflect on Thoreau's Walden. We will only be the richer for it.

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