Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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Presented by (2006)

In chapter 3 of Thoreau’s classic work the author argues that the way forward for personal development is to combine solitude with manual labour. By living on one’s own, the individual can have both the time and space to learn from the lessons of the ancients, who are not just literary authors; rather they provide an essential spiritual and physical guide for right living. To understand Greek and Roman work is essential to convert an illiterate nation, as they help to make people intelligent while celebrating the strength of the intellect. They provide a true measure of progress rather than industrial or capitalist development. Hence it is necessary for the fledgling American nation to cultivate educational institutions; places where young minds can be instructed in the great classical arts.


In chapter 6 Thoreau changes his focus somewhat to concentrate on the importance of solitude. He believes that this is the only way to discover the Aeolian music; to communicate with the gods while appreciating the beauties of nature. He believes that solitude allows for the meeting of minds; those of the gods and those of human beings. If this can be achieved, this will subsequently lead to universal harmony. Such medieval-inspired thought also stresses the importance of contemplation; turning one’s mind away from corporeal thoughts and looking towards the heavens. In a radical move, Thoreau also argues that solitude is not a state of loneliness; on the contrary, those who live in society might be lonelier in the sense that they have no one to communicate directly with. True company consists of the company of Nature; the animals, the elements and God. This provides Thoreau with the justification for residing at Walden Pond; he should live on his own to understand the medicines of nature and its ways of healing people. A draught of morning air is the best panacea for illnesses, rather than human medicines.


Radical in its time, Thoreau’s thought continues to have an influence over contemporary Americans. This was the subject of an “Entitled Opinions” discussion, originally broadcast on KCSU Stanford, and presented by the philosophy academic Robert Harrison. His guest was the physics graduate Kathryn Todd. Harrison argued that Thoreau wanted individuals to live according to their dreams; to live according to a higher order. This was especially significant during the 1960s at the time of the Peace Movement and the ‘Back to Nature’ campaign. Although he valued individualism, it was not self-willed individualism. Rather he believed that solitude encouraged people to trust in themselves and thereby learn to believe in the kind of freedom lying at the heart of the American nation. Thoreau advocated individual wisdom, something much more important than blindly relying on the wisdom of one’s elders. Todd disagreed; while understanding Thoreau’s point of view, she found it somewhat limiting in the sense that it only applied to men. Women were expected to fulfil a secondary role by staying at home or simply bringing up families; they could not enjoy the pleasures of solitude. Harrison on the other hand argued that Thoreau was trying to develop American intellectual thought. He was not a Puritan; rather he sought to find alternatives to the Puritan experience, which by the mid-19th century was one of profound disillusions, as people discovered that New England was not the Utopia they had hoped for when they came to the country two centuries previously. Thoreau tried to awaken them to the miracles of nature, which could help the search for perfection. Todd countered, quite logically, with the argument that such beliefs were at best idealistic and at worse elitist; it was impossible for everyone to live alone. As with many academic discussions, it did not come to any particular conclusion, but at least showed that Thoreau remains a talking-point for many American intellectuals, even though his works were written nearly a century and a half ago.

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