Simplicity, Nature, and the Preservation of Democracy

The year of a presidential election seems like a particularly good time to revisit the qualities necessary for American self-governance. Bob Pepperman Taylor’s book, Lessons from Walden: Thoreau and the Crisis of American Democracy attempts to do just that. Reaching back to Jacksonian democracy, Taylor uses Henry David Thoreau as a tour guide to reveal the threats and temptations in the contemporary American landscape. For Thoreau, like others of his era, the primary threats to democracy reside in the shiny conventions of everyday life which lull Americans into a quiet despotism of unexamined habits and mechanical utilitarianism. Thoreau is ferocious in his well-known critique of those who “keep pace with their companions…rather than step to the music of a different drummer.” And Taylor, keeping pace with Thoreau, tries to reimagine that music as a 21st-century melody.

The book focuses on three primary themes: First, Americans need to simplify their lives and consider cultivating various elements of what Thoreau calls “voluntary poverty.” Second, Americans need to follow their moral intuitions in order to preserve their moral integrity and their commitment to democracy. Third, Americans should live close to and learn from the natural world. Each of these demands, Taylor ties to contemporary American challenges.

Individuality and Community

Especially germane to our populist era are Thoreau’s concerns about the influence of demagogues. For Thoreau, Americans are particularly vulnerable to demagogues because of their “foolishness and blinding self-interest.” And the best remedy against demagogues, Thoreau suggests, is the cultivation of personal responsibility. By this Thoreau means Americans must have the courage of their convictions and, perhaps even more importantly, they must assess these convictions for themselves away from the noise and banality of public opinion: “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or indicates his fate.” Thoreau even doubted the moral significance of elections, once referring to voting as “a sort of gaming.”

Although this may seem like a turn away from the political in keeping with Hannah Arendt’s criticism of Thoreau, Taylor seeks to elevate the political ramifications of Thoreau’s appeal to moral conscience and courage as the very preconditions for a just and equitable public life. For example, Taylor highlights Thoreau’s conception of “neighborliness” as part of his foundational community-building. He describes this process as “bringing people together from different walks of life within a shared (proximate) community of egalitarian respect. This is not a claim about political democracy writ-large, but it is a claim about democracy’s building blocks, about the elements of pre-political democratic civil society.” You need to be a good neighbor before you can be a good citizen. We see echoes of this sentiment in the iconic “good neighbor” and democratic citizen, Mr. Rogers.

For Thoreau, the American Project after the Revolutionary era was not about maximizing national wealth or international dominance. Rather, congruent with what Charles Murray has recently argued, the American Project consists of the continuing efforts to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit yet still come together voluntarily to solve their joint problems. Thoreau, like conservatives today, worried that America was losing the civic culture necessary to maintain the republic; Thoreau, like Emerson, looked to Nature, “a sanctity which shames our religions” and provides “a different, truer and more significant moral reality” than what we find in society where we are “permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.”  Elsewhere in his work, Taylor calls this Thoreau’s “pastoral environmentalism.” Similarly, George Will has recently noted that American literature reflects and reinforces this national yearning for a natural but private space in which to work out one’s personal destiny: James Fenimore Cooper in the forest, Herman Melville at sea, Mark Twain on the Mississippi, and Henry David Thoreau at his pond.

The most interesting chapters of Lessons from Walden focus on Thoreau’s conception of simplicity as a moral category and on Thoreau’s rather nuanced assessment of how one can retain autonomy and individuality while still cultivating neighborliness. Taylor highlights how Thoreau laid the foundations for simplicity as a precursor to democratic citizenship. “The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as to what are called the means are increased, and that a reliable rule of thumb is the more money, the less virtue.” Thoreau worried that monetary assessments had exempted all other values and that Americans could no longer discern what truly mattered because they were relentlessly focused on work, work, work. “I think there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay to life itself than this incessant business.” In other words, Americans might be personally successful, but they were abdicating their responsibility to set and promulgate standards that aligned with the natural moral order.

Wealth and Justice

Thoreau worried about wealth because he believed it distracts from “what really matters” and contributes to alienation and the loss of autonomy. “Men become tools of their tools…we do not ride upon the railroad as it rides upon us.”  Property crimes like stealing increase as wealth disparities widen and wealth, Thoreau believed, entangles us in institutions of injustice. Simple living gives one moral clarity: “when one does without… the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and the war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things.”

Thoreau argued that wealth accumulation was one of the primary motives for why Northern landholders continued to do business with the slaveholding South. Only by withdrawing from this dependence on wealth could Americans live autonomous and free lives, exempt from the injustices of the institutions that maintained these disparities. Thoreau wanted Americans to focus on “the eternal, the timeless and the true.” Derived from these insights is Thoreau’s most cogent critique of slavery. If Americans lived more simply, they would no longer be dependent on the goods which slavery supplies and would more clearly see the moral repugnance of slavery. While not an assessment that considers the humanity of the enslaved, per se, Thoreau’s moral case against slavery was sincere: “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also…The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.” Slavery, according to Thoreau, is fueled, in part, by human thoughtlessness. And when Thoreau defends John Brown, he insists that social consensus is not a guarantee of truth; Brown’s actions were justified, Thoreau argues, because he was an inspired reformer with a sacred vocation, defending a natural right.

While Taylor is judicious in his applications of Thoreau’s insistence on “voluntary poverty,” this part of Thoreau’s formulation feels decidedly outdated and unresponsive to contemporary realities. Voluntary poverty, as Taylor recognizes, is a privilege available only to those who are already secure that their poverty is chosen, temporary and reversible. Taylor details one of Thoreau’s descriptions of an encounter with a poor Irish laborer living in a shack with his wife and children. The family shares their shack with chickens and is “apparently unable to win any battles against the prevailing dirt and disorder.” Thoreau’s patronizing attitude and inability to understand how poverty might shape one’s possibilities rather than serve as a merely trifling experience readily overcome is named by Taylor as “the ugliest passage in Walden.” Certainly, Thoreau is more ethically compelling when he is urging the privileged to give up their trinkets than when he is advising the involuntary poor to become moral philosophers.

Still Relevant in a Different Era

It is always a difficult intellectual project to make a historical political thinker speak in the vernacular of a contemporary era. Taylor’s book reveals some of the hurdles. The translations from Jacksonian democracy to contemporary Trumpian populism are strained, sometimes facile. Taylor offers a cursory history attempting to link the eras, but the details are too few and the history too wide-ranging to be fully persuasive. The book sometimes reads less like an argument and more like a literature review—a quite competent one—but a review nonetheless.

At other times, especially in the chapter “Learning From Nature,” Taylor dispenses with Thoreau altogether. In fact, over 15 pages of the chapter do not mention Thoreau at all. Nonetheless, the chapter is quite insightful, and Taylor synthesizes a considerable amount of environmental thinking into a compelling narrative. He just doesn’t need Thoreau to do so. For example, unlike Thoreau, Taylor considers how perceptions of nature might differ depending upon whether one is a free or enslaved person and how different conceptions of nature and the wilderness are embedded in America’s founding. In one of the most intellectually robust detours from Thoreau, Taylor details how various conceptions of environmentalism may or may not dovetail easily with democratic practices and progressive politics, “What use is there in referring to what Nature wants, other than as a strategy to short-circuit democratic politics by asserting authority for a higher power?” Perhaps, though, one might consider whether sustainability might be more like the choral “Ode to Man” in Sophocles’ Antigone, a bid for human beings to recognize and respect human limits as a pragmatic fact of human survival. After his review of multiple perspectives inside the environmental movement, Taylor is at his most eloquent and erudite when he makes his claims for human limits as the gateway to freedom and, quoting Wendell Berry, as “fidelity to the natural order.”

Although an application of Thoreau can sometimes feel dated and a bit strained, re-reading Thoreau can still be useful for understanding contemporary features of American democracy. Thoreau provides several essential guideposts that can continue to inform contemporary understanding. For example, Thoreau’s insistence that individual morality and restraint are foundational to democracy is an insight worth considering. Further, his recognition that American prosperity can distract us from the requirements of citizenship and the concomitant obligations to our neighbors remains worthy of investigation. And, of course, Thoreau’s foundational suspicion of government overreach is a lesson that continues to warrant repetition and elaboration: “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.” Taylor’s book reminds us of these insights and his provocations are reason enough to re-read Thoreau today.