I have lately been doing my patriotic duty and reading Walden, or rather, to “simplify,” I’m listening to the audio book. I wanted very much to enjoy it, as a masterpiece of individualism and humanism. I enjoy, even if I may not completely share, the vision of the self-sufficient man living life in simplicity and savoring the experience of natural life. I thought I would delight in the eloquent prose of a journey of self-discovery and celebration of life.
Instead, it turns out to be an album of pseudo-sophisticated claptrap; a merciless collection of false profundity and Puritanism. Thoreau’s ignorance of economics is absolute. His hostility to material prosperity and spiritual invocations to “simplify” are nothing more than the old asceticism of Savanarola tranplanted into a quaint country cabin. “Trade curses everything it handles,” for instance. Yeah, right—unless you have a family to provide for. His hostility toward the drive for productivity goes beyond merely sensible and Epicurean advice to live sparingly and to relish our gifts—which would be true wisdom though unoriginal—and becomes instead a real contempt for people that he doesn’t know and of whose circumstances he is totally ignorant. Not just ignorant, but ignorant in that colossally self-righteous way reserved only for youths. He is, really, a fey, self-absorbed, coddled little brat, like many college students one meets, more concerned with demonstrating their own self-righteousness than with accomplishing anything worthy of praise. He boldly tells us that
I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.
which is as clear an indication of his foolishness as one could have hoped for. I have lived some thirty two years on this planet, and I can say I have heard a great deal of wisdom from my elders. Perhaps because I was not so ready to regard anyone with different priorities than my own as being a trivial and contemptible human waste. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, he tells us. But how does Henry know this? Does he know what makes most men tick? He merely assumes that a simple life in the woods by himself is more meaningful, more real, than the lives of family farmers and mechanics and shop workers who may lead hard lives but do so to provide for the future and for their loved ones. These were the people Walt Whitman celebrated so beautifully; to Thoreau they are petty machines, run over by the railroad.
He routinely utters the most sophomoric riddles and paradoxes designed to infect us with his reactionary preference for the allegedly more meaningful life of savages and rural villages, while ignoring the ravages of poverty, disease, illiteracy, ignorance, loneliness, monotony, hierarchy, and darkness that such a life actually represents. This is in the good romanticist tradition, of course; very Rousseauian. To imagine that the more authentic individual life could be attained by somehow transcending the material needs of existence—whether through a magical political revolution as in Marx, or through attaining a selfless nirvana that eliminates all desire as with the eastern religions Thoreau so admires—was one of the hallmarks of nineteenth century romanticism. One could forgive him for that as merely naive. But the grating arrogance, the condescending tone toward those people who are living lives different from his—the unremitting and ignorant judgmentalism—is hardly tolerable.
And how it is expressed! In aphorisms as trite as they are stupid. Oh, yes, many men are owned by their houses. Very deep from a man who at the age of thirty has no wife and children to shelter; no small business to finance through a mortgage; who lives on a sinecure from Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month,” he asks us,
the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this — or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers’ penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?
This is about as profound as “Who is bigger, Mr. Bigger, or Mr. Bigger’s baby?” The answer is obviously that the second boy has advanced more, since he has both the reading and the knife, while the first boy has wasted his energy and forgone the enjoyments of existence to mine and smelt ore, make steel from it, fashion it into a knife, etc. (all of which would take much more than a month) and ends up with only the knife. Yet we’re to think he is better off because he’s got a more authentic knife? Nonsense! Why is my life less authentic and profound because I trade with others for my needs and am thereby free to devote my time to gardening or going on vacations with my family or building up my business or listening to great music on my iPod or learning from great books? Lives that seem cluttered to you, Mr. Thoreau, might be every bit as profound as yours. And who is more likely to cut himself? Probably the second boy, because he's actually using the knife to cut pages and learn, while the other boy is too exhausted from his mining and smelting chores to cut anything!
Liberalism, as that term is used in the U.S. today, has two particularly ugly illnesses. One is relativism. The other is the patronizing puritanical attitude of those who think that material prosperity is a dead end and that they know better than people who do seek prosperity. This is the Luddite snobbishness that leads liberals to shut down opportunities for those in need, barring the trade that third world countries need for their economic improvement, and preaching self-destructive anti-materialistic nonsense that ends up hurting everyone in the service of allegedly higher goals. The romanticist rejection of technology (as we recently saw in the finale of Battlestar Galactica, for example) has real-world consequences, and they are pernicious ones; pernicious especially for those in poverty in foreign lands who cannot afford the luxury of being a fashionably anti-technology American liberal.
There is no doubting that materialism can be a cause of spiritual emptiness and no doubt there are a lot of people who “starve for want of luxuries.” But it is always easy to regard another man’s things as superficial and another man’s pursuits as greedy, while one’s own belongings have sentimental value and one’s own pursuits are profound (or at least harmless indulgences). It is even easier for self-righteous 30 year olds to regard older men with families as leading lives of desperation, while impressing themselves with the depth of their spiritual access.
In this country, the village should in some respects take the place of the nobleman of Europe. It should be the patron of the fine arts. It is rich enough. It wants only the magnanimity and refinement. It can spend money enough on such things as farmers and traders value, but it is thought Utopian to propose spending money for things which more intelligent men know to be of far more worth.
Is this not the very prototype of the modern liberal, ready to spend someone else’s money on things he simply assumes are of greater worth than the desires of those whose money he is spending? and ready in an instant to accuse you of lacking magnanimity and refinement when you object? A farmer sweats behind a plow for ten hours in a day to feed his family and pay his bills and suddenly he's told by Mr. 30 year old unmarried guest-of-the-Emersons Thoreau that he must give up a portion of his earnings to the village so it can be a “patron of the fine arts”—arts in the form, no doubt, of the works of Mr. fed-by-his-mother Thoreau and his friends. When the farmer says No, thank you, I’d rather choose what I spend my own money on, Thoreau calls him an uncultured boob leading a life of quiet desperation. Meanwhile he drops in a nice contemptuous reference to “such things as farmers and traders value,” such things, you know, as are prized by picayune nonentities who don’t read Latin. Give this man a Blackberry and the phrase “flyover country” and he could be governor of Massachusetts by now.
Is it any wonder so few of his contemporaries bought his book? No doubt he considered this proof of the superiority of his spirit to those of the dusty little monkeys among whom he was forced to live. But I would prefer the company of any dozen farmers and traders who actually earn their bread than that of a smarmy Buddha-quoting mama’s boy in his clubhouse by the lake.
It’s not just so-called materialism that I’m talking about; it’s the spiritual meaning of material goods. Thoreau has contempt for the bourgeois virtues, a contempt he sometimes expresses in lovely prose, and indeed it has been expressed in lovelier words than his. That doesn’t change the fact that it is contempt for the values of family and the hearth and the pursuit of happiness that most of humanity longs for. It’s fashionable for such people as I have described to regard wholesomeness as superficial, when in fact countless millions of people have suffered and died merely for a glimpse of it. Odysseus went through his travails for what, to eat huckleberries at a campground? No; to return to his home and to his wife. Was he less of a man for that? Less of a man than Thoreau? this whelp? this whiskered charlatan? this self-important boob, living in a cabin within walking distance of a town, dining at friends’ houses and daydreaming about how happy the Indians are?
Yes, I do believe the virtues of simplicity are real virtues, but they are Epicurean virtues, not romantic ones. And they are virtues which can only be understood within the context of a man’s life and circumstances, which Thoreau does not even bother trying to learn. Instead he tells us that living without furniture and eating green corn with salt is sucking the marrow out of life, but getting a good education or making one’s business a success or listening to Bach on a CD player or sipping champagne from crystal on New Year’s Eve or saving up for an engagement ring or buying a toy for one’s child or a home for one’s family is not.
This man must be the chief ass of Nineteenth Century American letters. For a good reverie, give me Whitman any day; he at least knew how to truly celebrate; he knew where the marrow was. Here was a man who opened the windows for us to see the beauties of the earth—both urban and rural—and did not sneer at us for living according to our own priorities.
Update2: Thanks to Samizata for the link!