I’ve been reading various Thoreau writings. He was a major figure in American Transcendentalism, along with Emerson. The movement was anti-dogma and attempted to find “truth” and “goodness” by personal reflection and intuition. For Thoreau, this meant rejecting contemporary culture and to attempt is own spiritual way in solitude and in nature. Thoreau would not really have called it solitude – he seemed perfectly happy with plants and birds as friends. His conclusion is we invent too much superfluous baggage in life which is without value. He attempts to avoid the distraction of this baggage and to focus on what he finds more important.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is a short account of a week spend on a river canoeing trip with his brother. There is no dialogue but, in typical style of Thoreau, it is very descriptive; the rivers, plants and animals are covered in great detail. This can be slightly heavy reading at times. He occasionally mixes proses with verse, which facilitates expressing his message, which is not rationalist, but also partly artistic. There are several digressions, mainly on the philosophy with respect to friendship.

Civil Disobedience recounts the authors experience of being imprisoned for a night for failure to pay taxes. He also includes an analysis of the relationship between the individual and the state. He observes the state cannot fully satisfy everyone, even in a democracy, given there is some differences in opinion. If the state will not be swayed by discussion, the individual is left with little recourse. Thoreau claims that a state that doesn’t represent an individual’s interests can be ignored. In his case, he objected to slavery and the Mexican–American War (he was writing in 1849). Since he refused to support these institutions, he refused to pay tax and was therefore imprisoned. His attitude is a world away from Rousseau with his “social contract“. This call for passive resistance was a forerunner to civil rights leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Walden describes the authors two year “experiment” in simple living in woods by Walden Pond, near Concord (which is near Boston). He provides almost endless descriptions of the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of nature. This can get a little … slow. But the point is tries to convey is that his life was far from boring to live (in contrast to read about). His curiosity keeps him active, not to mention spending hours hoeing his beans. His simple house was built with is own hands using little money. He also provides critique of civilization, in contrast to his life. He questions the need for progress for its own sake, such as rail roads, the telegraph, newspapers, the post office, etc. because he never has learned anything spiritually important from such things. Many of the themes were echoed in Enough by John Naish. Both say we can find happiness, or whatever we are seeking, by scaling back on consumption and avoiding distractions from what we want. I did detect a note in Thoreau of wanting to fight human instincts, but this seemed to be a passing thought. (To attempt such a thing is warned against by Nietzsche.)

I’ll write up A Life Without Principle separately, after re-reading it.

Anti Citizen One