Idiosyncratic Individualist


Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, by Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Berkeley: University of California Press, 455 pages, $25.00

By the time Henry David Thoreau started to build his cabin at Walden Pond in 1845, the newly laid rails of the Boston and Fitchburg railroad could be seen from virtually every one of the property's 15 acres. To the owner of the property, Ralph Waldo Emerson (who had paid $214.10 for it), the coming of the railroad was a disaster of civilization intruding harshly on his and his friends' various dreams of communal life genteelly isolated from the raging world of industrial capitalism. To the people who rode the train, it was pure progress. The Concord-to-Boston fare was only 50 cents, a third cheaper than the stagecoach and four times as fast.

More than the railroad had come to Concord. Adam Smith had arrived also. And who was there to welcome him? Damned if it wasn't Henry David himself!

Thanks to this "intellectual biography" of the one American literary figure who seems to excite every kind of anti-authoritarian radicalism—left, right, up, down, and sideways—I now feel comfortable in claiming Thoreau wholly for the side of liberty. He was not a socialist or any other kind of collectivist or even a communalist. He was not a believer in coercion, even if for good causes. He would not serve society. He did not respect the authority of civil government. He did not even believe in the divine right of Christianity. His entire life was devoted to the seamless perfection of individual liberty and, specifically, liberty for the individual who was Thoreau. All of this becomes marvelously clear in Robert D. Richardson, Jr.'s Thoreau: A Life of the Mind.

Unlike an ordinary biography, this one concentrates on what Thoreau was thinking about, what he was reading, and what arguments he was making publicly and privately throughout his life. And it puts all of this in the intimate context of what he was doing, who he was seeing, who he was loving, and how he was making his living at every step of the way. If I had to choose a single volume to familiarize someone with Thoreau, I would select this one.

Richardson sees the first chapter of Thoreau's seminal book, Walden, or Life in the Woods, which is devoted to domestic economy, as a response to the new economics of Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations had been published in 1776. Except for disagreement over mass consumption and the desirability of the division of labor, Thoreau's was a very sympathetic response. "Smith's basic terms," Richardson writes, "provide many of [Walden's] main topics," and "much of his opening chapter is an application of Smith's ideas and terminology to the individual case."

And there, as a matter of fact, arose Thoreau's main disagreements with Smith. Smith was interested in the production of things; Thoreau, in the production of his own individual freedom to be left alone. He preferred the sort of individualistic, nondivided labor that can keep a person an independent producer. But he emphatically agreed with Smith that productive labor is the absolute requirement of wealth and, by inference, liberty from imperial authority. In his own work as a pencilmaker, Thoreau was often eagerly engaged in improving production techniques—not just to make more pencils but to more equitably balance the time spent observing nature, walking in the woods, and thinking about things.

Thoreau's "portable" skills other than pencilmaking were teaching and surveying, both ventures in which he could produce freedom of personal action by being, in effect, a one-man operation. When, in his teaching, his individual freedom was challenged by the demands of institutional authority, he moved on to other things. Surveying, of course, was a lone task.

His notion of an ideal venture was one in which you "oversee all the details yourself in person: to be at once pilot and captain, and owner and underwriter." Was there ever a more wonderfully individualistic statement of one possibility of laissez-faire capitalism? And for Thoreau's modern, spiritual neighbors, is there a more sobering thought than realizing that only, repeat only, in the free markets of a free society is there even the possibility of realizing the ideal Thoreauvian venture?

A modern Thoreau, it could be argued, would be an entrepreneur, never a company man. And modern Thoreaus, it also could be argued, thanks to the constant miniaturization of complex industrial equipment, are in a better technological position than ever to reduce the need for divisions of labor to precisely the point that suits their individual needs. For instance, a modern Thoreau, with cybernated machine tools, might be able to produce a competitive number of fine pencils, perhaps for a specialty trade, with just a couple of friends, all of whom could share the production effort.

I elaborate on this because to understand the appreciation that Thoreau had for much of Adam Smith, one must be patient with his reasons for objecting to Smith's case for the division of labor. The objections had to do with the way Thoreau preferred to live. Besides wanting to be a one-man operation in the way he worked, Thoreau was a one-man show in his approach to ideas. He picked them for what they could do for the way he lived, not to conform to anyone else's idea of intellectual propriety.

Even in his approach to nature, Thoreau is more the persistent, individualistic, free-thinking scientist than an awestruck worshipper of nature freed from human intelligence. As Richardson sums up Thoreau's feelings about humans in nature and the nature of humans: "The savage may have the place of honor inside the civilized person, but both are necessary to true integrity." While Thoreau revered the wild (if the relatively civilized pastoral life of 19th-century New Hampshire could be called wild), he revered his own intelligence as much and was as interested in understanding his environment as in living peacefully in it. In fact, it would be difficult to do the latter effectively without doing the former energetically.

(Actually, Thoreau could be a dangerous klutz when loose in the woods. Once, while fishing with a friend, he lit a cooking fire in a decayed pine stump, amid dry woods, and promptly started a forest fire that consumed 300 acres. On the other hand, as a purely intellectual, investigative naturalist he became fairly well known in the then-emerging scientific circles of America and even worked and argued with one of its leading figures, Louis Agassiz. Thoreau argued the points that Darwin would later expand upon, while Agassiz supported a creationist view.)

Thoreau's major involvements with wholly social activities were in the matter of slavery and in opposition to the annexation of Texas and the subsequent war with Mexico. He was, for a time, an impassioned supporter of John Brown, even (briefly and uncharacteristically) supporting his armed resistance.

But overall, his every "reformist" notion was centered on himself and not on society. Richardson puts it this way: "Thoreau's going to live at Walden seems clearly intended as the self-reliant individual's answer to the challenge posed by utopian communes.…Thoreau's stay at Walden was the ultimate reform commune, reduced, for purposes of emphasis, to the simplest possible constituent unit, the self."

Thoreau's life is so magnificently idiosyncratic that only a firm believer in a free society can accept it without affront. He didn't like mass-production society or an emphasis on consumption. He did not, however, inaugurate a lobbying effort to pass a law against either. He simply stopped being part of the one or succumbing to the other. And who would pass a law to stop him?

My own private fantasy, not at all dimmed by this fine biography, is that Thoreau could have seen an emerging compromise, or synthesis, between his notions of individual simplicity and industrial capitalism in the steady march of technology toward miniaturization and decentralization. Or, at least, he could have found a way to live pleasantly in even the most consumerist society by planting his garden in an obscure part of it just as he had done outside Concord. He could, that is, if a zoning commission didn't prohibit it and the DEA didn't raid it.

Thoreau rejected the notion of servile obedience to the state, but he harmed no one nor did he infringe on anyone's freedom. He sought neither the safety nor the security of state protection. And who would pass a law to make him declare his unwilling allegiance?

His keen view of the state has, of course, endeared him to many radicals. But his insistence on nonviolent resistance surely turns off leftist hotheads, while his insistence on the primacy of the individual against any and all institutions surely turns off rightist seekers of ordered authority.

Incidentally, all of Richardson's painstaking research failed to turn up any evidence of the epic, aphoristic encounter between Thoreau and Emerson while Thoreau spent his famous night in jail for refusing to pay a tax. (Emerson: What are you doing in there? Thoreau: What are you doing out there?) Never mind, Thoreau did expand on the theme later and in pretty much the same terms.

Thoreau's feeling about the primacy of the individual seems to have been a lifelong disposition. Richardson describes his very first public lecture, which he prepared at Emerson's urging, in 1838: "Starting with the good Aristotelian position that 'man was made for society,' Thoreau wondered if the time-honored words had not 'come to stand for another thing,' almost the opposite of the original intent, making it necessary 'in order to preserve its significance, to write it anew.' Perhaps, he argued, it should be put 'Society was made for Man.'…His point here was not a fractious denial of the importance of social organizations but simply a reminder to his listeners that society was only a means to the end of the individual self-fulfillment, and not the other way around."

Earlier, in college, he had written that "the fear of displeasing the world ought not, in the least, to influence my actions." Shades of anarchist philosopher Max Stirner! And he also wrote that the indispensable minimum requirement for what a man should do is that "he may not impose on his fellows." Shades of virtually every libertarian credo!

Fluent in several languages, he derived much of his thinking from the writings of the German Enlightenment and from Greek, Hindu, and Chinese religious writings. Although not a strident critic of Christianity, he went to some lengths to disassociate himself from it.

There is a passage from Walden that speaks to this: "I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. They say that characters were engraven on the bathing tub of King Tching-chang to this effect: 'Renew thyself completely each day; do it again and again, and forever again.' I can understand that." Richardson refers to this as evidence of "Thoreau's great awakening, but it is an awakening to daily renewal, not to eternal redemption."

Thoreau died on the morning of May 6, 1862. Outside, as Richardson concludes his grand work on this glorious, gritty man, "the earliest apple trees began to leaf and show green, just as they do every year on this day."

Karl Hess, once a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater, is editor of Libertarian Party News.