Everyone is ragging on Thoreau lately. Why? Anarchists love him; liberal greens love him. He’s everyone’s favorite nature boy. But in the last week, I’ve come across two articles that tear him separate new ones (poor guy). The authors of those articles make strong points.

Purged, Thoreau may be, from the upper eschelons of intellectual superherodom…

I. Gary North’s article, Thoreau’s Walden: Phony Testament of the Greens

I’m going to admit right here and now, before anyone calls me out. I haven’t read Walden cover to cover. I seem to encounter bits and pieces of it enough, and definitely the “mythology” that enshrouds Thoreau is packed tightly into my sardine can of a head. Oh, I’ve owned a rad-looking copy of Walden/Civil Disobedience since I was in high school, but I’ll have to preliminarily agree with Gary North here, the writing is pretty bad.

North admits the only “gripping” writing in Walden is Thoreau’s description of a red ant and a black ant battling on a tree stump. I agree, but I only know of the scene from an episode of the Lapham’s Quarterly podcast I stumbled upon. I listened to it while driving a car. Thoreau rolls in his grave.

North picks apart the Wikipedia article for Walden, Mystery Science Theatre-style. He sums up an otherwise deluded passage I’ve deemed as “Thoreau porn” in one short sentence:

[FROM WIKIPEDIA:] Walden is a difficult book to read for three reasons: First, it was written by a gifted writer who uses surgically precise language, extended, allegorical metaphors, long and complex paragraphs and sentences, and vivid, detailed, and insightful descriptions. Thoreau does not hesitate to use metaphors, allusions, understatement, hyperbole, personification, irony, satire, metonymy, synecdoche, and oxymorons, and he can shift from a scientific to a transcendental point of view in mid-sentence.

[NORTH SMACKDOWN:] [Translation: “It’s a dense, almost unreadable book.”]

In fact, I’m finally understanding why I’ve never read the damned thing.

The “Thoreau porn” kept on coming, while North swatted it away like a swarm of black flies :

Second, its logic is based on a different understanding of life, quite contrary to what most people would call common sense. Ironically, this logic is based on what most people say they believe. Thoreau, recognizing this, fills Walden with sarcasm, paradoxes, and double entendres. He likes to tease, challenge, and even fool his readers.

[Translation: “The book doesn’t make sense.”]


And third, quite often any words would be inadequate at expressing many of Thoreau’s non-verbal insights into truth. Thoreau must use non-literal language to express these notions, and the reader must reach out to understand.

[Translation: “The book doesn’t make sense.”]

If that’s a book review, I’m never reading Walden. However, I still insist, the mythology remains unbroken. What about the quest for a simple life? What about the “importance of solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature” our Wikipedia author insists upon? The reckless spirit of adventure upon the rivers Concord and Merrimack? What about that epic beard that only a member of the 2013 Boston Red Sox could be jealous of? Or what was that thing about the “business of living” ? Isn’t that the point of it all?

Wendy McElroy sums up Thoreau’s awesomeness quite efficiently in her book The Art of Being Free, so I won’t try to sound so original:

[Thoreau] believed man was not put on earth to confront his neighbor or to rail against injustice but to enjoy the simple, rich pleasures of life. His insight: People should be primarily occupied by the business of living and only pay attention to the state when it comes knocking at your door, demanding your property or your co-operation in an immoral act, such as financing a war. As Thoreau stated, “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.”

Then there’s that line about standing in the blueberry bushes, and not seeing the state anywhere! Yeah? Thoreau rules, right?

Theory aside, the more I read of North’s article, the more disappointed I became in my  hero’s actions:

Thoreau spent nearly four times as long on the “Walden” manuscript as he actually spent at the cabin. Upon leaving Walden Pond and at Emerson’s request, Thoreau returned to Emerson’s house and spent the majority of his time paying debts.

[So, the whole experiment cost him so much money that it took him years to pay off the debts. Is this self-reliance?]

From North’s article, I gathered an important reminder that one should never forget, but constantly be reminded of, lest we become (in North’s words) shucked rubes: “Read critically. Don’t take anyone’s word for this. Decide for yourself.”

II. Gracy Olmstead’s article, Thoreau vs. St. Benedict: How We “Opt Out” Matters

a. first, who is this St. Benedict guy?

Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has suggested a bold solution for our troubling times of statism and otherwise amoral culture. It’s wrapped in a 1500-year-old package: The Benedict Option.

“If libertarians on the right worry about structural collapse,” Dreher writes, “cultural and religious conservatives add a moral and spiritual dimension to the debate. Rising hedonism, waning religious observance, ongoing break-up of the family, and a general loss of cultural coherence — to traditionalists, these are signs of a possible Dark Age ahead.”

Dark Age? “Christians have been here before,” Dreher insists. History repeats itself, over and over. Only some people listen. So what is this Benedict Option, anyway?

Benedict was a fellow who lived in Rome for a while, then turned his nose to the “decadent” city, deciding to “opt out” by fleeing to the forests, to live a life of … what did that Wikipedia guy write? Oh, a life of “solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature.” But not quite, you see…

Let us turn to Dreher for more background. Benedict “personally founded a dozen monastic communities.” This was important, as times were tumultuous in Europe. Rome collapsed. “People forgot how to read, how to farm, how to govern themselves, how to build houses, how to trade, and even what it had once meant to be a human being. Behind monastery walls, though, in their chapels, scriptoriums, and refectories, Benedict’s monks built lives of peace, order, and learning and spread their network throughout Western Europe.”

In fact, these private communities “emerged as islands of sanity and serenity…from which European civilization gradually re-emerged.”

The first sentence in his article asks, “Are we Rome?” If so, then Dreher’s suggestion is to opt Benedict, citizens. He shares the stories of traditionalist, religious individuals and families who chose to move to communities where their values were shared.

[Another real-life example of the Benedict Option in action is the Free State Project. As is Liberty.me. May these be the bases that civilization gradually re-emerges…]

b. ok, time to trash Thoreau again.

“Homesteading” is the hip, new thing, writes Gracy Olmstead from her post at TAC. And who is the ultimate homesteader but Mr. Thoreau, himself? “Thoreau and the homesteader are united in their desire for a simpler life, a back-to-nature and independence-driven mode of existence.”

Let the mythology and day dreaming commence! But is Thoreau’s idea of individualist solitude really so great?

While both Thoreau and Benedict chose to “opt out” of society’s customary mode of living, their methods of abstention were radically different. The individualism and self-focus of Thoreau’s romantic primitivism is sadly injurious to social living. Man is truly made for community—as Aristotle wrote, “man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it.”

As a Thoreau admirer (albeit without reading his actual books!) I had to sit back and think about this. “Sadly injurious” ? I decided to reflect not in the comforts of my quiet apartment: I took to the streets! — well, I sat on my stoop in the April sun, and read a book called Favorite Nature Stories: From The Reader’s Digest.

I found myself slowly losing my grip on Thoreau mythology, as I greeted passers by while laughing heartily at the first chapter of the book. It was about ants, nature’s only farmer other than the human. Ants, the red and the black, battling each other on tree stumps, unaware someone much more intelligent than them watched with intense curiosity, eager to see what happens next…

III. “…enclaves of individualism, shacks along Walden Pond, each a bastion of noble selfishness.”

It all sunk in. A self-sufficient life of solitude deep in the forest is a beautiful ideal, but it is probably unhealthy for humanity as a whole. We need a community, a lots of individuals inside a big web of individuals. That’s my understanding of it, anyway. Thoreau — Mr. Self-Sufficiency — needed his mom to do his laundry, according to both North and Olmstead. Proof enough.

Homesteading, getting out of the gravel, digging my hands into the dirt: all poetic dreams that help me get by in these trying times of humankind (i.e. “Thoreau porn.”).

In fact, my dad just texted me the best idea ever: “Let’s go gold panning on the Swift river. Maybe a few days in the woods following the river up if we find anything. I have all the gear. So we will have to plan 3 or 4 days.”

I just lost my mind with excitement. But I can’t let Thoreau’s idea of “solitude” take over. We’ll be exploring the Swift together, building what is at least a Benedictine lean-to as we escape into the wild for a few days.

IV. (a defense and a compromise and a promise to make my own conclusions)

I was pleased to read Dreher’s response to Olmstead’s piece:

As I’ve said, the Benedict Option is not exclusively about running off to the woods to live hived away from everybody else (though it can be)…The point is, contemporary life is so hostile to traditional concepts of religion and virtue that to keep them alive and pass them on to one’s children, one has to be consciously countercultural — and consciously communal. Far as I can tell, nobody has figured out a one-size-fits-all model for that, because one does not exist.

Hey, I thought, why can’t we do both?

Thoreau wanted to opt out, like the rest of us. He just got it wrong somewhere, mostly by preaching isolation and by not practicing what he preached. I learned that I’ve gotten it wrong by following his ideas blindly. In an effort to make my own conclusions, as North suggests, I will slog my way through Walden, perhaps in my Waldenesque apartment; perhaps out on my Benedictine stoop.