Monthly Archives: January 2016

Thoreau: Thoughts on his Indictment and Defense

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I never read Walden, not in its entirety anyway. I read most of the first chapter. It was dreadful. I still remember struggling to keep up with the narrative and wondering why is this such a big deal. Overall, I love the message of the simple life, civil disobedience, and living as one with nature. I do not love the apparently hypocritical obsession with seclusion and the disdain for all humanity. But this, of course, is a very shallow view of Thoreau. But then again, I do not have the patience to study him deeply. Fortunately, Kathryn Schultz and Jedediah Purdy do and offer an indictment of the man and somewhat halfhearted defense.

I really enjoyed reading both of these, but perhaps not surprisingly I found the indictment more convincing. The defence goes something like this. Sure, Thoreau was a hypocrite and an asshole, but we should not blame the message for the messenger (i.e. ad hominem or an opposite of blaming the messenger) even though in this case it happens to be the same person. I can get behind this argument. In science and in business there were and surely are lots of arrogant assholes, who nevertheless made important contributions. John Nash, despite a very favorable portrayal in the movie Beautiful Mind (the book is much less flattering), was not a very nice man. Steve Jobs was no sweetheart either. And so on. So, is Thoreau’s message important enough to stand on its own? That I am not qualified to answer, but a contrarian and anti-authoritarian in me wants to believe it that it is.

Thanks to Bryan Lewis for pointing me to these articles on his web page.