Thoreau is sort of America's original 'crack pot.' What he is most famous for is going to live on Walden Pond. I always had the impression that he was a hundred miles from anywhere. Actually, it was like living in Vienna and walking into Ruston when he needed something. He wasn't that far away from everybody else, but wilderness wasn't that too far away in America at the time. Somebody did a topographical study to find the point in the lower forty-eight which is the furthest away from a road and it was in the Yellowstone Park and was only like twenty-eight or thirty miles from a road. Now, we are pretty much crisscrossed with civilization. At the time, things are still spreading westward, and it doesn't take that long to get away from folks. He lives mainly in Concord, Massachusetts. He was Emerson's handyman. Sort of a crusty type of fellow, probably a bit hard to get along with, but very much an American figure. In some respects, because of his experience on Walden, he has become one of the fathers of American Conservation Movement. An idea that we should take care of nature. He tried his hand at trying to run a pencil factory, but it went broke. After that, he just scraped along. He did a lot of writing. He wasn't that popular a writer. He had one book run off, and out of a thousand copies there were about seven hundred left over. He wound up buying them all, and he told someone that 'I have a library of eight hundred volumes, most of which were written by me.' My graduate school roommate had gotten an album recorded & he kept stacks of his records under his bed. I would sometimes threaten to use them as frisbies.
"Resistance to Civil Government"
Here he talks about the idea of Civil Disobedience. Do we have an obligation
to follow the law? Generally, yes. When is it okay to disobey the law?
According to the traditional moral philosophy, on what basis can you disobey
a law? When the law is wrong, when it breaks a higher law. Let's suppose
that Ruston passes a law that disagrees with the laws of the state of Louisiana.
Which one takes precedence? The state law. Suppose the state conflicts
with the national law? Which one takes precedence? The national law. Within
the last three or four years, Mississippi passed the amendments to the
constitution that banned slavery. Well, had there been slavery in Mississippi
since the Civil War? No. So, their laws were on the books, and they are
finally undoing them on the books. When, in fact, they had been gone for
quite awhile. Now, let's suppose that Nation passes a law that, which is
against our idea of fundamental justice. Do you obey it? Take the thing
in the Vietnam War people burning their draft cards, because they said
that the government has no right to wage this war. What is the basis of
that? Traditionally it has been higher law, the idea that this law is conflicting
with divine law, the way that lower laws conflict with higher laws. So,
the theory sort of follows the chain on up. In fact, how do you know what
God wants? It is sort of according to your own conscience, isn't it? Some
people went to Vietnam, and were following their conscience in doing that.
Some people refused to go, and were following their conscience in doing
that. Many of them maybe went to the same churches. So, how does God tell
one person that this is wrong and the other that this is right? It is one
of those mysteries, isn't it? A lot of times, when we think we are hearing
God's voice, we could be actually hearing our own. So, Thoreau sort of
cuts through the traditional ideas that this is what God is telling us,
and says that this is what my conscience said. The basis of Civil Disobedience
is my own conscience. So, he takes this idea of Self-Reliance to the extreme.
For Jefferson, you rebel against the government when enough people join
with you and you try to form a new government. So it is a corporate act,
an act of a group of people. For Thoreau, I don't need anybody else to
rebel. I can rebel by myself. Based not on natural law or any thing like
that, or interpretations of the Bible, but simply based on my own conscience.
"Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign
his conscience to the legislator?" Does my congress person, does my president
have the right to tell me what to do? What makes them so wise?
"The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines,
with their bodies . . . In most cases there is no free exercise whatever
of the judgment or of the moral sense; . . ." So how do we serve the State,
the Society? Normally by just doing what they say. Does he see himself
as serving the American Society by thinking, and following his own conscience?
Yes, that's the argument. The rest of you are serving the State as a machine.
He is serving as a man by engaging his moral ability to think for himself.
He was, by the way, opposed to the Mexican-American War, which many people,
including some of its generals, saw as unjust. U. S. Grant wrote in his
memoirs some years later that this was an immoral war. It was sort of a
bald land grab. We want the land. We are going to go take it. So, it had
much of the same problems that we would later have in the Vietnam War,
in that many people saw it as an immoral war. Why is America doing this?
Is there a higher noble mission here or is it something ignes?
What do you do when there are unjust laws? Shall we be content to obey
them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded,
or shall we transgress them at once? So, do you wait until the law is changed,
or do you try to change it by breaking the law? Civil Rights -- illegal
for black people to register to vote -- Do you wait until you get the right
to vote to move forward, or do you go and stand in the line in front of
the Court House, and try to register, and thus break the law? Well, what
do many people do? Did anybody go and stand in that line? Well, yes. And
were they the ones doing the right thing, or were the ones enforcing the
law by sicking dogs on them and spraying them with water cannons and things
like that, and shooting them, were they doing the right thing? Who was
right? Those breaking the law. Pretty much everybody agrees on that now.
And so they the ones who were not serving the state as a machine, they
were serving the state as free men and women. Although the law did not
grant them their freedom, they took it. He is saying that is what we have
to do. Thoreau is very popular in the civil disobedience movement.
He talks about the being the freest man in Concord, the night that he
spent in jail. (I don't see it marked.) The guy comes to take him says
I am sorry I don't want to arrest you but I have to. Thoreau says no you
don't. You can quit your spot. Yeah, but that wasn't convenient, was it?
The person did what he was told and arrested Thoreau. He thinks of him
as languishing in jail. This was just a little county lockup like you see
on "Mayberry." Then he only spent one night there till somebody
paid his fine for him. But his point is that he is willing to disobey.
"Walden, or Life in the Woods"
He treats his retreat, if you will, into the place around Walden as
an experiment. In other words, we are seeing here some of the effects of
the enlightenment. Have you figured things out? Well, you go and experiment.
So he goes out to the woods to see if he can live simply, and thus live
a better life. Now, he has certain advantages, the main one being that
he is single. He doesn't have a wife. He doesn't have children. If you
have a wife and children, they start to get hungry, and if you start to
pull this Rip Van Winkle sort of stuff and disappear off into the woods
for a year or two, they might not be too happy with that.
This is one of Thoreau's famous statements, "I have traveled a good
deal in Concord; . . " What can that possibly mean? That's like saying
"I have traveled a good deal in Dubach." What does it mean to travel a
good deal in Concord or in Dubach? What was it that Emerson said about
travel? Do we forget so quickly? Ah, that was before the break. What did
he think about traveling? Is that a good way to expand your mind? No, you
travel where you are, that is what Thoreau is saying, notice again the
influence of Emerson. I have been here and I have traveled and looked around
and seen things, and grown to know the truth of the universe through the
truth of Concord. Didn't have to go to England; didn't have to go to Egypt;
didn't have to go to France. I just traveled in Concord, so that is what
I am going to write about.
(This is even more famous) "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
What does this mean? What is he saying about most of us? Are we happy?
Pretty miserable, but we are quiet about it. ". . . lives of quiet desperation.
What is called, resignation, is confirmed desperation. From the desperate
city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with
the bravery of minks and muskrats." So he's saying most people are not
happy with their lives. How can we have happier lives? We have to perform
experiments, and see which is the lifestyle which will give us the most
encouragement, the most happiness.
He finally gets to the woods. Obviously, he is writing about more than simply living around Walden Pond. He is writing about the attitudes that sent him there, the way of living. "Near the end of March 1845, . . ." (A mere fifteen years from the Civil War.) ". . . I borrowed and axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended by build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, . . ." (I wondered if he borrowed it from Emerson?) " . . . but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise." He said,
". . . I returned it sharper than I received it." So he returned it in better shape than he took it. But his goal here is to be as nearly self-reliant as possible, although this is not an absolute thing. Nor is he a purest in the sense of I'll stay in the woods all the time and never go into town, or I'll never buy anything at the store. Some people want to set up their own lives without relying on anybody what-so-ever. This isn't Thoreau. He is simply trying to get off and live by himself, live as cheaply and simply as possible. One reason that we will lives of quiet desperation, instead of having happiness, is because of the gap between what we have and what we want. How do most of us most of the time go about trying to increase our happiness? Do we try to want less or to get more? We are programmed to get more. The T. V. comes on. They advertise stuff. They don't say be happy with the car you have. It'll get another fifty thousand miles. What do they say? You need that brand new car. So, we are taught to try to get more. But what is the other way to become happy and content, let's say, with what we have? Rather than try to get more, want less. Thoreau says simplify. If you want less stuff, if you are satisfied with a one room cabin, then you won't need to work as much. You will be able to spend more time loafing around and enjoying the world, going out and looking at stuff. His purpose was not simply to do everything himself. His purpose was to live life as simply as possible. If it is easier to go into town and to buy a nail, buy a nail. You don't need to make that, you can buy it. The point is to buy as few nails as possible, and thus, work less. The less I work, the more time I have for other things. So for him, the American Dream is not getting everything you want, not rags to riches, it's being happy in your rags. It's being warm enough. It's being full enough. Just getting enough, so that then you can devote yourself to other things.
"There is some of the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building its own nest." So if we build our own place to live, we take more satisfaction from it. And certainly, you are happy with less room when you are building it yourself. Right? When my wife looks out in the back yard and sees such a mess, I'm pretty happy with it. Because in order to make it look less of a mess, I would have to get out there and do something. So, "It looks fine to me, honey."He gives us a list of the supplies that he bought. Again, if you want a window, you don't go and melt sand. That would be too hard. You just go and buy a window. Buy the nails, the caulk, the chalk, everything else.
He gives us more accounting lists, and he keeps up with these very closely, because he wants to show how simply you can get by.
Conclusion -- He didn't stay out there in the wilderness. That would have been a foolish consistency. He had other lives to live. This was his Walden Period. He had other periods in his life to go to.
"Let them wander and scrutinize the outlandish Australians.The idea is, why travel around the world, look at Australia, look at the Iberians (in Spain). Why go everywhere to see everything, when you can learn more of yourself. Have more of life. Have more of God right here by staying at home.
I have more of God, they more of the road."
"I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time from that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular rout. And make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped keep it open. . . . How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!"
He went out there to do something new, to get out of a rut, and what is the first thing he did? He made a new path. So he only stayed out there for a time and left while it was still a path. It was time to leave before the path became a rut and he got stuck in it.