Walden Pond, by Arthur Chartow
Thoreau's Revolution of the Individual
Sara Bruya (c) 2007
Thoreau’s Walden is a complicated text, with many possible insights to be drawn from his critique of society and the description of his experience living at
Thoreau proposes that the pursuit of truth, liberty, and creative innovation—what Thoreau calls the “elevation of mankind”—depends upon the principles of non-conformity. This because “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion…What old people say you cannot do you try and find out that you can.” Everything taken to be true by precedent must be tried and tested by the individual, Thoreau asserts. We should not limit ourselves by accepting the proofs and truths of others; humanity’s fullest potential has never been measured.
Thoreau, like Emerson, champions the autonomy of the individual. Although Thoreau removes himself from society in his Walden experiment, I do not believe that he was ultimately advocating the removal of the individual from society, but rather suggesting an invigoration of society through the contributions and conscious actions of autonomous individuals. Conformity stifles the singular manifestation and contribution of each unique individual. Where Emerson theorized about non-conformity, Thoreau created a practical example (though by no means a sole model) of a life alternatively conceived and committed.
A primary critique of Walden, at least among my classmates, seems to be that Thoreau’s experiment does not serve as a realistic solution to his critique of society. However, Thoreau was certainly not suggesting a move into the woods as a model for others to follow. To expect Thoreau to provide an example for the rest of us to emulate is to misunderstand Thoreau entirely. He would abhor being copied. “I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account;” Thoreau writes, “…I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.” Thoreau would ask the individual to remove him/herself from the current of conformity and to discover, establish the solid ground of the unique, autonomous self. He wants us to “…take up a little life into our pores,” nurture a vital and authentic response to life, become conscious of our conventional state, and determine whether our agency derives from our own being or from compulsion to uphold societal norms.
Thus, to read Thoreau as advocating “back to nature” would be to miss its fundamental intention. Rather than provide a practical solution to the ills of society, Walden provides an allegorical illustration of the autonomous self; and the autonomous self is that alone which is capable of providing practical solutions to the ills of society. Human agency and autonomous choice are critical to the pursuits of truth, liberty and innovation for Thoreau, and these can only be achieved through a process of distinguishing the self from the societal influence upon it. Though perhaps the self and society’s influence upon it can never be thoroughly separated, Emerson and Thoreau both assert that a most important task in life is to distinguish the one from the other, and to understand which of the two motivates one’s choices and behavior in any given situation.
Thoreau advocates a change of perspective, a shaking loose of the grip of custom and tradition. One must first see the grip, and in order to do so, a separation is necessary to gain perspective. As Thoreau demonstrated, this does not require a long journey, or a great distance, but perhaps only the retreat into one’s own nature from which to observe and critically evaluate the norms of society. It is precisely the process of making such a distinction between self and convention, and acting in accord with the new insight gained to which Thoreau’s Walden experiment symbolically refers.
We live in community, in relation. Walden poses the question: How are we going to live in relation—is it going to be from within the current of conformity or from the solid ground of autonomy, informed by a deep connection with our own selves? “What do we want most to dwell near to,” he writes, “…but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction. This will vary with different natures, but this is the place where a wise man will dig his cellar…”
Thoreau wanted to prove, not that man can live without society, but that man must live in society as himself, and that the autonomous self is accessible, and productive. He gives concrete form to his message of critical distance and individual agency. Thus Thoreau’s experiment at Walden provides a practical metaphor for the temporary break with convention needed in order to gain critical perspective.
Thoreau is a revolutionary, but his solution is not a revolution of society. It is a revolution of the individual in relation to society. His solution is a revolution of personal behavior based on a liberation of the self from the influence of the tradition and social constraints. Thoreau’s revolution is a reorientation of self to society.
The benefits to society of developing the invigorated, autonomous individual are many. As we are, Thoreau argues, “…our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level…” Such a revolution of the autonomous individual would necessarily elevate and enrich humankind’s interactions. It is important not to confuse the kind of non-conformity Thoreau is suggesting with mere selfishness or self-centeredness. Autonomy, for Thoreau, is equivalent to a love of wisdom; “a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
Though Thoreau’s revolution is individual, its application can be social, even political. Gandhi credits Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience with having influence on his concept of satyagraha, or soul-force. Where Thoreau stressed individual non-conformity, Gandhi made it a vehicle for the masses. “It was no longer an individual force as Thoreau saw it, but it became a [movement] in which the majority could participate.” The invigorated, autonomous individual, alone or in solidarity with others, is a powerful, conscientious force for truth, liberty, and innovation.
On this note, I turn to the question of why Thoreau’s revolution of the individual is important for us. I conjecture that Thoreau would be critical of our current system of higher education; the very one that requires an analysis of his thought and the thoughts of others, but not an exploration of the application thereof. We read about Thoreau so as to broaden our encyclopedic knowledge of philosophers and their ideas. We read for facts. We analyze Thoreau, without valuing and interweaving the perennial source of our own lives into our endless collection of theories formulated by other people. To quote Henri Frederic Amiel, such “analysis kills spontaneity. The grain once ground into flour springs and germinates no more.” While tradition, convention and the valuable ideas of life’s former sages need not be ignored, Thoreau’s point is that they must be transformed. To continue the metaphor, the flour must be leavened by the autonomous individual and contributed anew to society with the added flourish of the unique manifestation of life that each individual represents. Life, in this way, is not merely recreated according to pre-existing models, but is regenerated.
With Thoreau, I would argue that we must not continue to marginalize the divine spark, the unique manifestation of life in each of us, making of ourselves satellites instead of systems. In fact, we might see it as our duty to contribute to life and society from this germ of unique insight and potential in each of us, rather than continue grinding it into flour. This will require of us a serious examination of the pedagogy by which we are presently being formed. We must be careful not to limit ourselves by the proofs and truths of others, but remember that humanity’s fullest potential has never been measured.