Walden & Civil Disobedience
Walden is an account of Henry Thoreau, written as he lived a life of simplicity in the woods for two years. His ideals were that one’s true self could be lost among the distractions in life; hence, he began to live deliberately by stripping away those distractions to reveal his own future visions and path. He experimented and explored what remained in the core of human conscience and discovered natural human inclinations. The book revolves around the assumption that there is a true self to discover, consisting both of natural and spiritual existence, that most are unaware of. Morris Kaplan’s critical essay Civil Disobedience, Conscience, and Community: Thoreau’s ‘Double Self’ and the Problematic of Political Action is a response to Thoreau’s transcendentalist ideals, attributing the work’s emotional and moral power to the ambiguity of his writings. While I agree with Kaplan’s explanation of “doubleness,” I disagree with his analysis of Walden’s writings regarding ambiguity and vagueness being his strongest method.
Readers of Walden, inspired on an individual level, have some sort of intimate experience with the book, which then affects how they view life and how they choose to live—what they choose to live for. The reader’s experience mirrors Thoreau’s experiment on living deliberately—quiet, private, but profound and meaningful. Thoreau expresses the dilemma of society as experiencing great spiritual events without waking up. He strongly expresses his faith and confidence that humanity will awaken, which can be seen of Walden’s final line “the sun is but a morning star.” He demonstrates the importance of human connection with nature as a necessity for moral and spiritual stability and emphasizes the need for actual self-realization. Kaplan states the withdrawal from society as incomplete
Thoreau writes his essays to spark his neighbor citizens of the world they live in. He hopes to awaken them to see the world differently, as he does, and push them to act. He advises his readers to exercise their minds and create an ideal version of themselves, then find the means of making such vision or dream ideal. In ‘Economy,’ Thoreau writes ‘When one man has reduced a fact of the imagination to be a fact to his understanding, I foresee that all men at length establish their lives on that basis (12).’ By advocating the establishment of the readers’ life based on their goals and ideals, Walden prompts them to design their own future path, rather than following a given one. In the ‘Conclusion’ chapter of Walden, Thoreau reassures his readers, based on his own ‘experiment’ at Walden Pond, ‘that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours (356).’ Through Walden, Thoreau strongly suggests men to “make the best of two worlds,” the supernatural world of internal spirit and natural world of everyday existence. He advises his readers to recognize the ideal, then design their lives accordingly, which is within everyone’s grasp. As a result, spiritual existence becomes the same as everyday existence.
Kaplan names these existences as the “double self,” and supports Thoreau’s ideals of the division of conscience between “community and solitude, action and reflection, goodness and wildness (IV).” These dualisms of mind and body, spirit and flesh, individual and community, provide the different dimensions of living—the vision for “doubleness” becomes conclusive of the human state. This is evident when Thoreau writes “With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature… I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another… [a] spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it… This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbors and friends sometimes (149).” This description of “doubleness” evokes from the reader attempts to portray to the effects of reflective self-consciousness. For Thoreau, as Kaplan analyzes, “the project of living deliberately becomes aesthetic in a dual sense: the self becomes a theater in which both actor and spectator are engaged (IV).” Each person can be likened to an artist, struggling to make the most with the available materials and critically evaluating the results of his ongoing efforts. Kaplan also supports Thoreau’s “vision requires revision” ideal, writing “the social world in which we are immersed provides the context for self-making (IV).” He describes Thoreau’s essays as paradoxical and provocative, to elicit reflection and self-examination in the reader and “awaken a slumbering polity to the demands of deliberate living.” Readers experience Thoreau create a way of life that enables his dream of self-fulfillment come true. By attempting to awaken the dull spirit of the commoners, Thoreau offers to his readers an example of how we might “wake up” and excel in our unsatisfactory lives, which in the end, is nothing less than realizing our own perfection.