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Overrated? Underrated?

June 2024
1min read

Walter Isaacson’s statement that Thoreau’s basic solution to life is to “reject all social and political bonds and commitments” shows too cursory an understanding of Walden . Actually, Thoreau is arguing that the social and political bonds that seem necessary are often harmful to the individual’s self-discovery. Far from being prescriptive, he is simply advocating that people re-evaluate the institutions in their lives to see if they are actually worth adhering to. (A modern example would be the trend of putting oneself in debt for five years to pay for a car that will be out of style in three.) In no way does Thoreau call for simply shucking off all social and political institutions, especially since in no way did he attempt to do so in his own life. Far from being Isaacson’s hermit, after his two years at Waiden Pond Thoreau moved back to Concord (which was only a mile and a half away in the first place), made his living giving public lectures, and became a staunch abolitionist. His life shows that he gave up only the social and political institutions that he considered harmful or useless. Thoreau’s famous refusal to pay his taxes came from his disagreement with the government’s involvement in the Mexican War, not from disagreement with the idea of government.

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