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Arise, Ye Overworked Americans!
on October 31, 2002
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American philosopher, poet, and naturalist who moved in the same intellectual and social circles as Ralph Waldo Emerson. This Dover Thrift edition contains several important Thoreau tracts: Civil Disobedience, Slavery in Massachusetts, A Plea for Captain John Brown, Walking, and Life Without Principle. Thoreau also wrote the famous "Walden," and several other influential pieces shaped by his sense of environment and his unwavering belief in the power of the individual.
In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau discusses the role of the individual in society and government. Starting off with his famous statement, "That government is best which governs not at all," Thoreau waxes philosophic about the role of the United States government in the Mexican War and slavery. Thoreau argues that majorities in a democracy decide what the laws are because they are the strongest element in society. According to Thoreau, what is law is not necessarily right, and just because the majority decides an issue doesn't automatically make that issue palatable to a man's conscience. Individuals can, and sometimes should, oppose the majority, and they can be right even if they are in the minority. Ultimately, if laws are not reliable beacons of truth, one should appeal to one's conscience to decide what is right and wrong. However, merely deciding something is wrong is not enough if that decision is not followed by concrete action. Thoreau criticizes the voting process in this context, since anybody can vote for something. Without action following a decision, voting or supporting something is useless. This essay also contains Thoreau's account of his stay in jail for failure to pay a tax.
"A Plea for Captain John Brown" probably caused considerable controversy at the time of its writing. John Brown was the fire-breathing abolitionist who made the famous raid on Harper's Ferry in the 1850's. Brown eventually went to the gallows for his crimes while American citizens debated his actions. Most thought Brown a wacko, an extremely dangerous radical who threatened the social fabric of the country. Thoreau defends Brown in an essay both eloquent and naïve. This is really a panegyric to an unrealistic man who used questionable methods to attain his goal. When Thoreau refers to Brown as "an angel of light," it is necessary for the reader to remember Brown killed many people in cold blood.
"Walking" is the centerpiece of this collection of essays. Thoreau starts his discussion by musing on the wonders of walking in the country (sans terre, or "sauntering"), and ends up discussing nature, the movements of mankind, work, and freedom. Thoreau feels we gave up something very special when we locked ourselves in our shops and devoted our days to long hours of work. Get out! Enjoy life! Admire the trees, a sunset, and the birds! Don't give up your freedom for a wage and dull toil! These are the things Thoreau urges upon us in this essay, and he certainly has a point. This is an amazing piece of writing because it is probably more relevant today than in Thoreau's time. At least in those days vast expanses of nature still existed. Today, we must climb into our little boxes with wheels and drive for miles before we see a small forest or some mountains, while elbowing our way through all the others doing the same thing. "Walking" is a beautiful testament to a bucolic life.
I find Thoreau's writings vastly superior to anything Emerson wrote. Thoreau is more accessible, cares more about concrete issues, and seems like a nicer person. Thoreau comes across as the type of guy you could shoot the breeze with for an hour or so, whereas Emerson seems aloof and esoteric. Thoreau as a person is from an era long dead, but his words continue to resonate deeply in our souls. I think I'll go take a walk.