Update: A commenter says that I have several details in this post wrong. I just used the Wikipedia article and the foreword to my copy of On Civil Disobedience. I am happy to defer to real Thoreau scholars. Soon I will make the corrections indicated–although I do not think they distorted the main emphases of this small birthday tribute.
Happy Birthday, Thoreau. Born on 12 July 1817 in Concord, MA, Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s truly great philosophers–and someone whose influence should be recovered today. Born to privilege Born, at least, to what would be considered “middle classe” today and educated at Harvard, Thoreau chafed against the conformity of his age and class. He decided to live the simple life and his notes on this experience, published as Walden , helped to create the American tradition of simple living.
Walden is also one of the founding documents of the American environmentalist movement and Thoreau attempts to live in harmony with nature, rather than conquering it.
Another major area of influence is in nonviolence theory. It is not clear that Thoreau was a pacifist or had any theory of nonviolence, but he refused to pay the war tax levied to support the Mexican War because he opposed that war. [A commmenter, Richard, claims that this was only a local tax having no bearing on national affairs, but both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy support my original statement. This poll tax was levied by the American government to help finance the war with Mexico.] He was thrown in jail for his war tax resistance until a friend an aunt (against Thoreau’s wishes) paid the fine. Out of this experience, Thoreau wrote an essay which he titled, “Resistance to Civil Government,” but which has almost always been published under the title, On Civil Disobedience. In this essay, Thoreau articulates the principle that one should resist obeying laws that one knows to be unjust (such as a war tax or the Fugitive Slave Act), but to be willing to pay the legal consequences of this disobedience. By so doing, one does not support lawlessness, but nor does one cooperate with legalized evil. One can also help in such a way to change unjust laws. Thoreau called this voting with one’s entire life, rather than just voting at a poll on election day.
Thoreau influenced the tactics of the Abolitionist movement and many other subsequent movements for social change. [Again, commenter Paul claims this was not so, that it was Thoreau who was influenced by the Garrisonian abolitionists. Once again, I checked with standard biographical sources such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It seems the influence went both ways. Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, repeatedly published Thoreau’s essay, “Resistance to Government” and may have been the first to change the title to On Civil Disobedience. So, at least, it would be fair to say that Garrison found Thoreau’s articulation and defense of these tactics of what was then called “nonresistance” and today would be labelled “nonviolent resistance” to be powerfully compelling and worthy of dissemination.] These movements transformed Thoreau’s single act of conscience in resisting an imperialistic war (a war to expand slavery in the U.S., as he perceived the major motivation of the Mexican War to be) into a strategy to be implemented on a mass scale. He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in this way. Thus, Thoreau, a thoroughgoing indidualist, laid important groundwork for mass movements of nonviolent social change.
We live in an era of mass conformity–and Thoreau reminds us that nonconformity has deep roots in American culture. We live in an age of such consumerism that consumer activity accounts for 70% of the economy and economists from left to right eagerly await the American consumer to “regain confidence”” and return to patterns of debt-financed personal spending to jump-start economic recovery–and Thoreau reminds us that accumulating THINGS is not the way to happiness. We live in an era when close to 50% of our tax money goes for military purposes (when interest on current and past wars is added in and veterans benefits are included in the military budget)–and Thoreau reminds us that we do not have to choose to simply shake our heads and pay anyway–if we are willing to pay the price for moral resistance.
We live in an age of citizen apathy, when barely 50% of eligible voters show up at the polls and an increase of voter turnout is cause for great excitement–and Thoreau reminds us that this is the minimum of responsible citizenship, not its maximum. He challenges us, instead, to vote with our whole lives.
Henry David Thoreau speaks as strongly to our era as to his own and it would be good to recover this major American philosopher before American culture completely dissolves into militarism, consumerism, and absolute conformity.
UPDATE: It’s ironic that Thoreau and his legacy are so neglected in American life today, considering that he was a major influence on such wide-ranging figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, John Muir, and even Ernest Hemingway. Thoreau is such an iconic American figure that he once had his own U.S. postage stamp, yet today he is mostly forgotten and would be denounced by the “mainstream media” throughout the land as an anarchist and heathen. (Can you imagine what a Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity would do to any public figure who admitted being influenced by Thoreau?) [Again, my commenter, Richard, claims that Thoreau is NOT mostly forgotten. Maybe less than it appears to me, but I think he is far more neglected in the public schools and in public discourse than during the 1960s–despite the over 1 million visitors to Walden every year.]
My church, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, has a “Reclaiming Christmas” project every year. We try to resist the consumerist materialism that makes an entire economy depend on mindless buying to celebrate the birth of a poor carpenter and donate money saved to a project in the Two-Thirds World. But we have fun with it. Kicking it off this year near All Hallows Eve, Dan Trabue gave this rendition of Poe’s classic. And Dan didn’t even need Poe’s mental illness nor his morphine addiction! Enjoy.
as re-written by a naughty consumer.
Once upon a Christmas season, while I shopped without reason
Over many quaint and curious trinkets and toys from the store,
While I coasted down the aisles, that went on for miles and miles,
Til my socks of argyle were slipping towards the floor.
“‘Tis the season,” I muttered, ‘fa la la la las galore–
Only this, and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I recall it was very nearly Fall
And each of the shopping malls put up their finest Halloween decor
But not that holiday alone, for by September twenty-one
The freaking Christmas decorations did appear all over the stores!
The snowmen, reindeer, elves, and Santas made their way into the stores.
It seems they stay there evermore.
Presently my soul grew weaker; and my spirits they grew bleaker;
“Ma’am,” said I, “or Sir, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was shopping, and I saw you over there mopping,
And I wonder why you’re dropping, all these hints for us to buy more?
It’s not even November! Do all the distinguished members of the head board
Want us to buy forevermore?”
Deep into that dark soul staring, long I stood there wondering, glaring,
At the Blue Vested Customer Service Representative from the store.
But the silence was unbroken, and that teen, he gave no token,
And the only word there spoken were the grunted words, “I was just mopping the floor.”
This he grunted, like a football punted back the words, “the. . . the floor!”
Merely this and nothing more.
“Prophet!” said I, “Thing of evil!–prophet still, if shill or devil!–
Whither the Tempter sent you to lure me to this wretched store?
Tell me that I speak treason, not to want the Christmas season
By the greedy corporations–To turn tricks as a whore! —
This debasement I deplore!
Is there–is there deeper meaning? Tell me–tell me, I implore!”
Qoth the employee, “Dude, I was just mopping the floor.”
Now the manager, slowly running towards the noise so stunning,
and upsetting to the blessed shoppers busily treading through his store;
For he could not help but hearing that a customer was sneering
At the Christmas decorations so glaringly beautiful upon their doors.
Jesus is the reason for the seasonal increase in profits they adore.
They kicked me out—forevermore.