Dan's Philosophy Picks - Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry Thoreau


Because we like to keep things fresh here at O&F, our second pick in the philosophy recommendations series falls somewhat outside the confines of the traditional philosophical canon. It might even be asked whether, properly speaking, Thoreau's book should be considered philosophy at all. Let me try to quell these concerns - and thereby say something about what I take this book to be about - by firstly saying what I think it is not about. Walden is not about 'getting back to nature', nor should it be read as some kind of spiritually-infused ode to the purity of the natural world. Most importantly however, it is emphatically not a 'self-help' book. That is, it should not be read as some kind of guide to achieveing happiness, or even wisdom. Instead, Walden - as I understand it - is one person's passionate and almost pathalogically clear-eyed attempt at self-actualization. (Fancy word, Dan, but do you actually know what it means?) By this I just mean that this book constitutes one writer's attempt to understand himself and his relation to the world by looking closer at what was in front of him. Furthermore, since he was drawn to the simplicity and clarity of nature (woods, animals and - duh - ponds), that is where he found his philosophical inspiration and primary subject matter. (Not that the book doesn't also feature numerous insights about the social nature of human-kind.) As my O&F colleague Bella once helped me to see, 'self-help' books tell you how to find happiness through being 'normal'. That is, they function against the backdrop of standards and expectations that we are not often invited to question. Philosophy, on the other hand, begins with a spirit of refusal: refusal to accept the half-truths that satisfy a debased popular imagination. Thoreau felt - and lived - this refusal more deeply than most, and this perplexing, illuminating and frustrating book is the result.

Favourite quote:

There have been many stories told about the bottom, or rather no bottom, of this pond, which certainly had no foundation for themselves. It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it.”

- Dan