Belief  /  Book Review

Thoreau In Good Faith

A literary examination of Henry David Thoreau's life and legacy today.

Thoreau’s path was an ascetic one, designed especially to retrain his attention, opening his sensorium up to objects and others. Even writing was not as lonesome as it might appear. For Thoreau, “writing is a practice that contributes to broader forms of sociality by cultivating habits of attention in the author.”

Modern capitalism manipulated people of Thoreau’s class, he believed, by tricking them into craving things they didn’t need. He shut out the market’s distractions so that he could return to savoring the uncommodified parts of life. He was not seeking mortification for its own sake; he wanted greater intensities of perception and deeper communion with the people he loved.

This doesn’t mean Thoreau exempted himself from the modern economy. He knew that there was no exemption. According to Balthrop-Lewis, he was trying to live simply so that everyone could get their share of the world’s common goods. By placing some limits on what he allowed himself to consume—for instance, no coffee, since it came from slave plantations—he believed that he could access richer kinds of joy and pleasure. Balthrop-Lewis calls this “delight in true goods,” the grateful appreciation of “God’s gifts of life and nature.”

The ethos of delight in true goods, Balthrop-Lewis shows, motivates Thoreau’s sensuous asceticism, and it is also the foundation of his ethics and his politics. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages, using his journal to train himself in observation and composition. In the same spirit, he risked his life and freedom when his conscience demanded it, for instance, in helping fugitives on the run from slavery.

The point about political activism is crucial to Thoreau’s Religion. Other critics, notably Hannah Arendt in her essay “Civil Disobedience” (1970), have accused Thoreau of a self-absorbed quietism—a preoccupation with keeping his own hands clean—that required no involvement in the compromised, collaborative work of politics. Today, Thoreau is sometimes caricatured as devising the luxury commodity of New Age spirituality, a self-care that consoles its practitioners while the world is burning all around them.

Balthrop-Lewis rejects any oversimple opposition between spirituality and activism. She argues that, paradoxically, “the ascetic practitioner participates in the society from which he withdraws by withdrawing from it.” Her interpretation reconnects Walden to Thoreau’s political writings, with special emphasis on economic problems like exploitation and the unequal distribution of resources.

“Thoreau’s asceticism,” she insists, “was also political, by which I mean it was aimed not only at his individual formation but also at the radical transformation of the world in which he lived, specifically of emerging industrial capitalism.” This is true.