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Thoreau's Declaration of Independence

What 'Walden' really stands for.

12:00 AM, Jul 4, 2006 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
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On July 4,1845, Henry David Thoreau built a cabin at Walden woods in Concord and challenged what he called the "restless, nervous, bustling, trivial 19th century." His full message delivered in Walden is as refreshing and revolutionary as when it was first published. Sadly, Walden is more often quoted than read. Today, Thoreau is whittled down as a prop to suit the political agendas of environmentalist, naturalists, and liberals. But Walden transcends all such cloying categories.

Thoreau was a strong individualist of the New England tradition, deeply troubled by the destructive elements of the new commercial society. His concern was with the development of the human person and with nourishing the soul. Fearful of the increasing conformity in modern life, he sought a simpler, unfettered one at Walden Pond. His message is not an environmental or political one. It is spiritual and artistic.

Living in a materialistic, industrial era when all life was being standardized and everyone competing in an abstract marketplace, Thoreau sensed that under such a system human beings would start to treat each other as commodities. People were beginning to view each other as objects for use and exploitation rather than as persons to be loved and cherished, persons with souls of an other-worldly destiny.

Moving to Walden Pond on July 4, 1845 was his Declaration of Independence. There he sheltered his human spirit from the encroaching mass culture that surrounded him, of those who defined the human being merely as an economic unit, a machine of pleasure and pain, or a "tool making animal." Thoreau sought to defend the whole man. At Walden Pond, he domesticated the complete human being: body, soul and mind.

Artistic knowledge is intuitive and spiritual. Materialism and rationalism rarely see beyond the tyranny of fact--of what can be seen, touched, or sold. Thoreau challenged our whole notion of material progress. He wrote, "while civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them."

True artists are concerned with the quality of life. Modern life seeks quantity over quality of having over being. Thoreau wrote, "Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul."

Walden gives us pause to think on the true meaning of human freedom and American independence. Thoreau's spiritual message of nonconformity is a challenge we all should aspire toward. He went to Walden Pond not to escape, but to encounter, the problem of reductionist modernity. He is no mere naturalist or environmentalist. Thoreau recognized that though man lives in nature, he has a supernatural end transcending nature and the world. He would have been critical of modern day environmentalists who "no longer camp for a night, but have camped down on earth and forgotten heaven."

Walden is a Declaration of Independence for the human soul. Thoreau's voice is the lone of the artist crying in the American wilderness. Such an artist, as T.S. Eliot said, is "always alone, being heterodox when everyone else is orthodox and orthodox when everyone else is heterodox. He is the perpetual upsetter of conventional values, the restorer of the real."

Patrick J. Walsh is a writer in Massachusetts.