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Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
#1
Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
Anyone who is interested in Thoreau, this thread is for posting passages from his body of work so that the rest of us may discuss their meaning and truth value.

I'll start us off:

Thoreau was an unapologetic abolitionist "I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State
which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house." And so he was put into jail for refusing to pay his poll tax.

Why did he refuse to pay his poll tax? Well, for one thing, Massachusetts had passed a fugitive slave law. This law directed law enforcement to return escaped slaves back to their owners in the South. This meant that the taxes Thoreau paid were supporting slavery. Thoreau also thought that America's war with Mexico was unjust and ill-conceived. He realized that, in the final analysis, what was keeping things like slavery and unjust wars going was--in part-- his obedience. Thoreau points out that, by being normal everyday taxpayers, we are contributing to whatever injustice the state supports.

Thoreau wrote: "If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible."

Thoreau decided that he was no longer going to be a contributor to these evils. And because citizens are expected to pay their taxes, he was jailed.

Do yourself a favor and carefully read the passage below. It is Thoreau's reflection on society that he had within his jail cell.

Quote:I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/71/71-h/71-h.htm


One of the things that struck me here was: "I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was." Even though Thoreau was confined inside a jail cell, he considered himself more free than the townsmen outside of the cell. They obeyed. They participated in war and slavery even if (morally speaking) they opposed slavery. They were contributors... servants who were too afraid to say "No." Why? They didn't want to end up in a jail cell like Thoreau.

But Thoreau, even when confined inside "walls of solid stone" considered himself more free, because he acted freely, acted according to his principles. He disobeyed. Because, to him, obedience and compromise of one's principles is the real jail cell. If you break out of that jail cell, you are truly free.

***

So, I get that this thread isn't going to be everybody's cup of tea. If that's what's up with you, please go post in some other thread. I didn't want to get [Serious] here... but, by the same token, if you think this is a waste of time, please move along. However, if you think Thoreau is wrong about something, I'd love to hear people's objections.

***

I'm enthusiastic about passages people may post here. I look forward to Walden passages and stuff from Thoreau's journals.
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#2
RE: Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
First of all, thanks for the new discussion and the thoughtful post.

If I remember correctly, Thoreau's aunt paid his tax without his permission and he was released the next day. He was not happy about that.

I have been a student of Thoreau for going on fifty years now, so I have been thinking about what he said and did for a long time. I am no longer the uncritical fan I once was.

The problem with this particular incident is that the U.S. government did some bad things but also some good things with their tax money. Not everything was awful. So Thoreau was just as much denying his funds for those good policies as well as for the bad ones which he opposed. That means his neighbors, who likely understood this, may have thought that paying their taxes was not necessarily contributing to injustice in balance. They may also have concluded that there were better ways to protest and change the policies than the one Thoreau chose, even if they took longer.

So while I can certainly understand why Thoreau chose to stand on principle on these matters, people were already aware of them and were also working to change them. So I think Thoreau likely misrepresented ordinary people to emphasize his point, which unfortunately was something he did on other occasions as well. He understood and used such questionable rhetoric, such exaggerations, from time to time as an argumentation technique.

In the real world, pluses and minuses are bound up together and can't easily be separated one from another. Thoreau thought the ideal was possible, and therefore ignored the tradeoffs involved in ordinary people's decision making.
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#3
RE: Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
Plus that, Thoreau's mother did his laundry while he lived at Walden Pond.

Look, I don't romanticize Thoreau like some of his worshippers do. It isn't about his aunt paying his taxes and getting him out of jail. Civil disobedience is a powerful idea that can overcome many injustices in this world. And it can overcome them without shedding a drop of blood or doing violence to a single person. Its potential has yet to be realized.

So what if some of Thoreau's taxes went to supporting good policies? A portion of them went to making sure that certain human beings had to endure lives of forced labor, where they were savagely beaten. Their children were sold at auctions. By paying his taxes, Thoreau was supporting slavery. He addresses this issue in "Civil Disobedience." Maybe you are due for a reread of it. Don't explain to Thoreau how his tax money goes to support "good policies." Don't explain to me how Thoreau's tax money goes to support "good policies." Go explain to the slave who has to work the cotton fields while being lashed with a whip how some of Thoreau's tax money goes to support "good policies." Explain to him how the some of the money that keeps him in servitude does good things too.

And what about the war with Mexico? People fucking died because of that war. They were shot and killed with the support of tax money. Thoreau's criticism of the Mexican war is applicable to most wars. Thoreau pointed out that the Mexican war was not the will of the American people, but rather, the will of a few individuals who stood to profit from it. And yet the American people are really the ones who made it happen through their obedience.

We all like to hate the Nazis. And I certainly don't love them one bit. But the fact is, the holocaust would not have been possible were it not for the obedience of the everyday German people. If they disobeyed, the Holocaust would not have happened...could not have happened. Civil disobedience is a powerful strategy to counter the evils of the world. Thoreau recognized that so much evil would not even be possible if we decided to stop participating in the societies that perpetuated them.
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#4
RE: Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
As I think I said, I am not criticizing Thoreau in this instance except in his self-righteous misrepresentation of ordinary people, who he thought of as imprisoned by conformity. "Why oh why can't they see how brilliant my simple solution to a complex problem is!" It's not at all clear that passive resistance could have ended slavery, and I have no doubt that many people ignored the law about escaped slaves.

Thoreau would have been more effective in conveying his messages if he had actually tried to understand and address the motivations of ordinary people.

Of course, passive resistance is a good tool to have in the toolbox since it works in certain situations. For that I give Thoreau credit.
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#5
RE: Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
(July 21, 2019 at 7:56 am)vulcanlogician Wrote: Thoreau recognized that so much evil would not even be possible if we decided to stop participating in the societies that perpetuated them.

It's been a long time since I read either Walden or "Civil Disobedience," so I don't recall how much Thoreau explicitly addresses Christianity. But I think the concept you cite here is one of the most important themes of the New Testament. And being in Cambridge at that time society would have been soaked in Christianity pretty thoroughly, even if the Transcendentalists felt they were diverging from the dogma.

If you read the Gospels with an earthly paradise in mind, Jesus becomes a serious ethical challenge to everybody. Even more today than then, I think. Try reading the whole thing and every time somebody says "Kingdom of God," don't interpret that as post-death heaven but as an earthly utopia. It makes far more sense, and jumps into relevance. 

The main question as I see it is: "how the hell do I deserve to be comfortable while others are suffering?" And the advice is then that I have an ethical obligation to renounce any and every comfort and devote myself to the less fortunate until such time as we can all be comfortable together. 

As we all know, this is impossible. In any future we can conceive of reaching, given today as a starting point, the world will never be fair or just. So you might as well give up and enjoy what you've got. 

This, I think, is addressed very clearly in the NT and Thoreau would have known that. First, the whole concept of Faith is that we trust things we can't see. And we devote our lives to that with no evidence we'll ever succeed. In other words, although your mission is sure to fail, you do it anyway. And I think this is why Paul says that we have to be holy fools -- wise people are absolutely correct that going to jail to stop a war won't do any good. But in some strange way it's actually wiser to do this hopeless action. 

We can read both "Civil Disobedience" and Walden in this light, I think. Thoreau was way too smart to think that his fellow citizens would listen to him, or follow him if they did. But he was right to challenge us with these questions. Simone Weil did something quite similar. Both of them demanded that we question why we are so weak as to NOT follow their examples. And this is a fundamental Christian question as well, despite how modern American Christians may have distorted it. 

[And to head off the objections of people who hate Christianity, I know that something similar exists in other religions. Bodhisattvas vow not to leave the world until everyone can. And Greek Stoicism calls for a radical evaluation of what is really worthwhile. The latter no doubt influenced Christianity, and both may have had some input on Thoreau. But he lived in a Christian culture, and one strong pattern in Christian history is one Christian telling all the others that they have to get back to their roots in poverty.]
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#6
RE: Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
@Alan V

LOL. Yeah... forgive me for being in "Passionate Transcendentalist Idealist" mode there. You were laying down some thoughtful and measured criticisms there and my response was a little belligerent.

Still, the idea that ordinary people are imprisoned by conformity is one worth exploring. It's tempting to juxtapose it with Thoreau's Harvard elitism, but what if you looked at the phenomenon of common conformity in a vacuum? Does it not imprison people?

Also, passive resistance was Gandhi's idea, not Thoreau's. I feel that passive resistance is an important elaboration on civil disobedience (one that is necessary for civil disobedience to really change the world in the way I think it can), but Thoreau's imperative wasn't that we "stand in the way" of injustice. His imperative was that we stop participating, stop obeying, stop lending our strength to the cause of injustice... because injustice cannot survive uless we continually nourish it with our participation-- which is what we all do by being obedient members of society.
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#7
RE: Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
Oh, also:

This is how I interpret Original Sin. The stuff about the fruit is just mythology.

Each of us is born guilty, in a worldly sense. When you get pushed out of the womb, the first thing you touch is the doctor's rubber glove. And that glove is affordable in the US because the CIA overthrew the government of Guatemala in order to keep the rubber cheap. Your first bassinet was assembled by slaves in China. And then there's the gas your parents used to drive you home.

Before you're even awake, you're completely mixed up in a web of oppression and horror, and YOU ARE BENEFITTING FROM IT.

So the question is, how do we discharge that guilt, even though we didn't consciously take it on?
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#8
RE: Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
^
Are you high, Belaqua? Or did you post in the wrong thread?

Full disclosure: I'm high. And I don't understand your last post.

Ahhhhhh.... okay. I get it. But I don't think Thoreau is criticizing that we benefit from the injustice. His problem is that we participate in it.
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#9
RE: Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
Perhaps he was rationalizing his confinement in terms amenable to his internal narrative. That he felt more free is certainly a metaphoric sense of freedom in contradiction to the plain reality of his situation.

He would have been uniquely aware of that fact, and in the calculus of appraising his situation it’s not surprising that the many frustrations and anxieties he was experiencing rounded up to some sort of success in principle in the face of a practical defeat.

It’s a thing we do, particularly when we lose.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a battle to commence then KPLOW, I hit em with the illness of my quill, Im endowed..with certain unalienable skills....  

-ERB


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#10
RE: Thread for the Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's Writings
Small aside, I think the Fugitive Slave Act was not a Massachusetts law, but a federal one. I’d have to double check, but I don’t think that was a law passed in Massachusetts so much as one upheld on some occasions in Massachusetts.
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