Where does Thoreau fit in our tradition?

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Where does Thoreau fit in our tradition?

  • B.K. Marcus

    In Gary North’s latest, he calls Henry David Thoreau the American Friedrich Engels:

    http://www.garynorth.com/public/12347.cfm

    I hated Walden when I was a high school student, but I came to love Thoreau years later for his Civil Disobedience. I know he doesn’t fit neatly into our tradition, but it does seem to me that he belongs there.

    Yes, Walden is embraced by the anti-capitalists, but I don’t quite trust North on how much Thoreau himself deserves the blame for it.

    On the other hand, I’m not much inclined at the moment to go back and reread Walden to find out. Easier to ask those with more recent experience of the text.

    So, bookworms of liberty, what say you?

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    • Redmond Weissenberger

      Never read it, never will.

      I don’t know if he was engels, maybe more of a Naomi Klein…

      http://www.cato.org/publications/briefing-paper/klein-doctrine-rise-disaster-polemics

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      Audra Flammang

      Wendy McElroy has a great discussion of Civil Disobedience and the life of Thoreau in her book, The Art of Being Free. <- Highly recommend this book (Wendy is a prolific writer and also has a publishing site here at L.me). I haven’t read Walden since high school, either. But as I recall, he was quite reclusive and just wanted to avoid trappings in life, more than being anti-capitalist.

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      B.K. Marcus

      Thank you so much, Audra, for reminding me of Wendy‘s chapter.

      I’ve posted it to OurTradition.Liberty.me for quick reference, but I encourage everyone to download the full book from the Liberty.me Library: The Art of Being Free: Politics Versus the Everyman and Woman

      Wendy clearly considers Thoreau a part of our broad tradition, but she mostly addresses “Civil Disobedience,” which I already know with some familiarity. It’s a great essay (and now that I think of it, I should probably post it to OurTradition as well).

      What I’m still wondering is how much Thoreau deserves the anti-capitalist reputation of Walden. It’s possible to be an ethical individualist and subscribe to the non-aggression axiom, and less with us on the positive, economic theories of free-market capitalism and progress. As Wendy points out, Gandhi was a student of Thoreau’s — and I think Gandhi himself fits this description.

      See Jeff Riggenbach “Does Gandhi Deserve a Place in the Libertarian Tradition?”

      See also Murray N. Rothbard’s “The New Menace of Gandhism”
      (PDF).

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        Wendy McElroy

        Thoreau was a transcendentalist and part of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s circle. It also included Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker and Charles Lane.

        Emerson’s transcendentalism was a unique form of individualism. Prior to Emerson, transcendentalism was a religious and philosophical movement; through him, it was converted into a cultural one although it retained much of the spiritual quality of its antecedent.

        Emerson’s Nature (1836) http://emersoncentral.com/nature.htm was a foundational document. In it, he argues that human beings can understand reality only by studying nature, through which divinity flows. The Emersonian transcendentalists believed that examining how the spirit in all things connected would allow “an active soul” to solve all of life’s problems.

        Although Emerson preferred to dwell on spiritual matters, he was openly anarchist. Self-reliance and individualism were among the prime virtues for transcendentalists.

        The emphasis on nature led Thoreau to shy away from materialism and to live as simply as it was possible for him to do. I do not believe this was an economic position but more of a spiritual one.

        More insight into Thoreau’s political views is available through A Voluntary Political Government (1982) edited by Carl Watner; the book is a selection of correspondence between Thoreau and his associate Charles Lane. I think muchof it may be online.

        Hope this helps. And thanks for recommending my book!

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      Nicholas J. Evans

      I know that he was an anarchist and an actual tax evader, and I also know from reading Walden that he picked up work here and there from doing logging work. With the exception of not owning his property, he was a great ancap in practice. Not sure what he believed in theory though. Maybe he was an ancom?

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        B.K. Marcus

        I think of “Civil Disobedience” as an important proto-anarchist text, but as Wendy writes,

        After what appears to be a call for anarchism, Thoreau pulls back and dissociates himself from “no-government men.” Speaking in practical terms and “as a citizen,” he states, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”

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        Nicholas J. Evans

        By that does he mean that he wants a transition to anarchy? First step is to have a better, limited, humanitarian government. And the second step is to keep bettering it by limiting it until it is no more?

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        Audra Flammang

        Now you’ve peaked my interest and I’m going to have to flip through Walden again. 🙂 Maybe if they were alive today he and Ghandi would indeed be able to recognize the clear distinction between the free market vs. cronyism.

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      Jake Desyllas

      Thoreau created some beautiful quotes, my favourite being this from civil disobedience:

      I heartily accept the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

      Having read a few quotes like that I looked forward to reading Walden. I was disappointed: I found it to be a bit of an incoherent ramble.

       

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      B.K. Marcus

      In the Freeman today, Sarah Skwire takes on Gary North point by point re Thoreau and Walden:

      http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/to-read-well-a-noble-exercise

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      Andrew Criscione

      Thoreau is in the anarchist/minarchist tradition. He was essential to me becoming an anarchist. His views on self-sufficiency are very Randian.

      “I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — ‘That government is best which governs least’;(1) and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — ‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” – Civil Disobedience

      “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life” – Walden

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      Lucy Steigerwald

      Thoreau, in spite of that one frustrating minarchist sentence in Civil Disobedience, is pure anarchist poetry. I file him away on my ideological shelf in that fashion. I have even considered a tattoo that would be a quote from Disobedience: “I was not made to be forced. I will breath after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.” The whole quote:

      “Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

      How can any libertarian or anarchist not adore that?

      Plus, as McElroy’s excellent chapter notes, that essay beings up lots of important push and pull within libertarianism, namely, should we be like the Thoreau who goes to jail over taxes deliberately unpaid, or should we be like the Thoreau who is freed, then goes berry-picking with some boys and thinks, “the state was nowhere to be seen.”

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      B.K. Marcus

      We will be discussing “Civil Disobedience” in the next Book of the Week hangout:

      http://tinyurl.com/LibertyBookworms

      Wednesday at 8 PM ET

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