Thoreau was thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes. But this wasn't a case of insufficient funds '- it was a gesture of protest against a government that supported slavery and the Mexican War. His mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, came... [more]
Thoreau was thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes. But this wasn't a case of insufficient funds '- it was a gesture of protest against a government that supported slavery and the Mexican War. His mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to visit him in his cell. The older man, who was more a passive philosopher than an active demonstrator, asked him what he was doing "in there." Thoreau turned to his friend and inquired, "What are you doing out there?"
Thoreau definitely had a love-hate relationship with society. To his thinking, humankind was severely misguided. When a fire broke out in his hometown of Concord, the writer merely sat on a hill and watched it burn: he found the sight beautiful. Apparently, civilization wasn't the first thing he'd run out to save.
The reasoning behind such silent protest becomes clear in his landmark essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." The work casts a decidedly suspicious eye towards government and firmly declares that the individual is greater than any collective body. Thoreau was an American in the oldest and truest sense: he saw the individual as the source of social salvation. The individual, Thoreau asserted, should influence government rather than vice versa. And the argument has proven to be appealing: a century later Gandhi used the essay as a model for his campaign for Indian independence; it also served as a handbook for the underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The tone of "Civil Disobedience" is markedly different from the one Thoreau adopts in 'A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers' (1849) or his magnum opus, "Walden" (1854). In the latter works, Thoreau is less the agitator than the naturalist and transcendentalist. His tone is more playful, full of poetics and wonder. A leaf, at first dissected with the scrutinizing eye of the botanist, can suddenly leap up and become a metaphor for all of humankind. Thoreau refused to be labeled a scientist, exclaiming that he could not explain his ideas to people who did not believe in "a science which deals with the higher laws." In 'Walden,' when he meticulously measures the depth of the pond, he in fact measures the depth of our ability to know things, the depth of the human soul.
As our hyper-industrialized era brings the struggle between man and mother earth to a crisis point, Thoreau speaks across the centuries with a prophet's voice. (For his championship of nature, many consider him to be the father of American conservationism and environmentalism.) His ideas address our fixation on material goods, demanding that we reconsider what we really need as opposed to what we merely want. [show less]