Monday 30 March 2020
Lessons from Walden by Bob Pepperman Taylor
Subtitled Thoreau and the Crisis of American Democracy, this book, in three chapters, explores themes from Henry David Thoreau's Walden: 1) the need to simplify our lives; 2) the need to follow our moral intuition and 3) to live close to and learn from the natural world. The author's intention being to use Walden as 'a springboard for thinking how we and our contemporaries wrestle, for better or worse, with the issues Thoreau raises'. He also explores some of the shortcomings of Walden's ideas for current circumstances.
The author observes that Walden uses the resurgence of nature in Spring as a metaphor for us to awaken ourselves from our lives of 'quiet desperation' so we can learn to live simple, more satisfying lives. He outlines the central point of Thoreau's approach as being achieving a satisfying simplicity rather than a self denying austerity and from there leads into a discussion of Thoreau's ethics as they contrast with the 'disinterested' ethics so often presented as desirable. He also explores Thoreau's difficulties with dealing with people who he met who were poor not by choice but by circumstance and his thinking behind the economy that forced people into poverty. He makes clear his belief that Thoreau saw voluntary simplicity as a way to challenge the inequalities of the established social order. Certainly, Walden ties personal awakening to the wider world and politics.
Walden, wasn't a vast wilderness, but on the edge of Concorde Village, but still was a place where Thoreau felt he could learn from nature. He saw nature's value in beauty and in it's potential as metaphor to to see ourselves in new ways.
"His project as a writer and artist, however, is primarily to use the natural world as a force for moral awakening or reform, and it is this project that makes him so significant in our American ethical traditions of thinking about nature."
Taking Thoreau's writings as a springboard, Pepperman Taylor gives an overview of changing American attitudes to nature, ranging from the differing views of the first colonial people and the first African slaves brought into the country to discussions of ecomodernism which puts its faith in technology to save nature. Thoreau's views about humans having a place in a locality where they cound intimately know nature, ran against the flow in a country where nature conservation originally grew out of a concern to preserve natural resources for their indistrial exploitation not from that exploitation.
Although Thoreau's Walden is central to the discussion in this book, the author also brings in not only Thoreau's other writings (particularly On Civil Disobedience) but works by others, from Plato's Republic to the writings of Aldo Leopold. He puts Thoreau in the context of other philosophers writing in the nineteenth century and follows common threads through more recent writers, to assess the state of the nation and modern politics. So this is a much more wide ranging work than the title might suggest.
It's the relevance of Thoreau's ideas to our current political and environmental situation that make it so vital that people revisit his writings and this scholarly book is a good analysis, particularly for the American reader. Also, in these times when many people are self isolating against the Corona virus, it is interesting to read about Thoreau's thoughts about separating himself from society at Walden, though that is by no means the main focus of this book.
Lessons from Walden by Bob Pepperman Taylor, published by University of Notre Dame Press.
Disclaimer: I received a free e-book in return for an honest review.