Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Books read in 2013: No. 47 -- Walden and Civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau

Started: Sept. 1
Finished: Sept. 17

Notes: As the title suggests, this is actually a collection of two of Thoreau's books, Walden and Civil Disobedience. I've had this book for some time, but kept putting it off because I wanted to be in the right frame of mind to study it and hopefully to enjoy it. The famous Walden is about the author's two years living alone in the woods near a pond, and Civil Disobedience was originally a speech given by Thoreau concerning the duties of American citizens. Individualism, to some extent libertarianism, transcendentalism, simplicity of living, and other factors are discussed in this literature.

Mini review: I went back and forth on this book. Some of it I found quite interesting, other parts not so much. Roughly the first half of Walden tends to focus upon philosophy, which to a modern eye is a sort of naturalist libertarianism. While I personally agreed with some of this and didn't agree with other parts of it, I still found it interesting, especially as it's a work of philosophy somewhat grounded in what I think of as "reality," and is not a philosophical work that goes off on tangents of logic so complicated as to almost be high mathematics (writers of empiricism especially come to mind ... John Locke, David Hume, etc., but also some of the rationalists like Leibniz and Descartes). The second half of Walden mostly focused upon Thoreau's various observations of nature around his cabin and at Walden Pond. This section of the book did not thrill me. Having lived a sizable portion of my life in or around rural districts, I'm well aware of what a pond looks like, the animals and plants found in such regions, the effects of the seasons upon such regions, etc. While there might have been some subjects of Thoreau's study specific to the Walden Pond region in the mid-19th Century, most of it was readily familiar. However, in this portion of Walden there were also some historical writings about particular individuals, a number of them slaves or former slaves, who lived in the area, and this I found of interest. The last chapter of Walden returns to the more philosophical writings, and this I enjoyed. As for Civil Disobedience, it is only about 20 pages, being a speech the author gave publicly on a few occasions. The reason for the speech is that Thoreau was once arrested and jailed for not paying a poll tax, which he did out of protest against slavery and the U.S. war with Mexico. Civil Disobedience itself does not focus on that event but it does allude to it, and it goes on into a philosophy that borders on anarchy while also retaining much concerning the U.S. Founding Fathers. Civil Disobedience I found interesting from historical, philosophical, and even political points of view. Thoreau calls for recognition of the importance of the individual within broader society. Not that an individual is necessarily more just than a collection of men, but that the collection isn't itself more just simply because of numbers. And Thoreau consider it the individual's duty to not take part in government of which he or she does not morally approve, even to the point of imprisonment and confiscation of goods. On the other hand, Thoreau suggests the best way to never be in any one government's power is to live simply, to never own enough of anything so that it hurts one when those belongings are taken away.


Charles Gramlich said...

I enjoyed Walden quite a lot. There's some very good prose in there, particularly in the sections about nature.

Ty Johnston said...

Oh, I agree. In fact, I think of all the 19th Century authors I've read, Thoreau's writing has the strongest resonance with the modern ear.

The nature section is probably his best prose, but I admit to being quite bored with it. The pages upon pages of description of ice breaking or birds flying was just too much for me. Though I was intrigued by his description of ants at war, especially as T.H. White had similar writings (though fictional). I also found interesting Thoreau's relationship with many of the smaller woodland animals.