William Eaton, in his interesting comment (see Zeteo, October 22, comment on my “Thoreau Bashing”) suggests that despite Thoreau’s trenchant criticisms of antebellum American society and despite the aesthetic appeal of his experiments in self-examination and simplified living, ultimately his nostrums have almost no relevance to the multiple and gathering crises of our own society. Thoreau has been read by countless high school and college students and is today the focus of a significant academic industry; yet his influence, when it comes down to it, is pretty much restricted to personal edification and enables no significant perspective or action vis-a-vis the “engines” that dominate us and drive our conformity.
I don’t wish to speak for Eaton, but I get the impression that by “engines of piety” he might be referring to something like our unwitting allegiance to the underlying forces of consumer capitalism and the military-industrial state. Through a combination of habit, apathy, manipulation, bewilderment, self-deception, laziness, and simply not knowing what else to do, we are all of us in the grip and service of these impersonal forces. Thoreau, someone might plausibly claim, provides little more than a mental holiday from our helpless complicity in this blind but inexorable system. In that respect, he’s no different from any other poet. Yes, people “die every day for lack of what is found there,” spiritually speaking, but most of our problems—actual hunger, disease, violence, and death—have do with the crudities of matter.
Thoreau’s defenders (I am one of them every other week) will naturally point to “Civil Disobedience” and mention Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Case closed. Unfortunately, we rarely take a careful look at what that famous text actually says. Nor do we ever ask ourselves such simple questions as what exactly those two heroes of mass resistance picked up from Thoreau and what they dropped, or—is it possible?—never even noticed. For example: “There is but little virtue in the actions of masses of men.” Really! Would Thoreau, at this stage of his thinking, have recommended to Gandhi and King that they focus on developing their individual characters rather than leading men and women in collective action? (That is a question.)
And what are we to make of something like this? “I do not wish to spit hairs or make fine distinctions…. I seek rather, I might say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head…[,] to discover a pretext for conformity.” Truly, most of us can recognize ourselves in that, I think. Furthermore: “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” Either there was a lot less cross-contamination in Thoreau’s day or the soap they used then was much stronger than ours.
Finally, from Thoreau’s brilliant—and strikingly Nietzschean—ten-page essay on selfishness and philanthropy at the end of “Economy”: “Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good that society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation….” Of course, Thoreau might still make himself available to do the social good that society does not demand of him, because society is busily repressing its awareness of the more radical good that needs be done, philanthropy itself being a mere conscience-cleansing exercise that leaves the systemic problems unaltered. But I doubt that he would. If I sound like I’m accusing Thoreau, I hope it’s apparent that I’m also accusing myself.