Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Walden Revisited -- self-sufficiency as a philosophy

I first read Walden by Henry David Thoreau when I was still in high school. Here are some more recent references to his three most available and popular works:

Thoreau, Henry David, and Carl Hovde. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Thoreau, Henry David, Owen Paul Thomas, and Henry David Thoreau. Walden, And Civil Disobedience. Authoritative Texts, Background, Reviews, and Essays in Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.

According to WorldCat there are some 520 editions of Thoreau's Walden.

Despite his enduring popularity, Thoreau's ideas would not really revolutionize mankind's condition. First, Thoreau had a very low opinion of the common working man. One of his most famous quotes is "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation." This was an interesting perspective from a man who, apparently, never felt the compulsion to keep a regular job and support a family. He also said, " I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors." What a sour way to view life and those around you! With perspective of age, Thoreau's rejection of "middle-class" values sounds a lot like what happened in the 1960s that was all bad.

Although I was initially attracted to Thoreau's philosophy, I have come to the conclusion that Thoreau's version of "self-sufficiency" and independence is an illusion based on some pretty persuasive fallacies. Basically, Thoreau's view of the world was not scalable. That is if many people tried to follow the solitary, "independent" existence, they would likely starve. It is notable that in his so-called independence he relied on his friend Emerson, for free land to live on during his year or so on Walden Pond. The measure of a philosophy's usefulness and validity is its scalability. Will this idea or system work, not only for one person? But what would happen if millions of people adopted the system or philosophy?

One of the basic differences between the teachings of modern day Prophets in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon or LDS Church) and the philosophers, like Thoreau, is the scalability of their teachings. If we all followed the Prophet's teachings and the Lord's version of "self-sufficiency" many, in fact most, of the worlds economic problems would be eliminated. For example, if all of the people of world, not just the Mormons, fasted one day a month and donated their savings to the poor, we would likely eliminate the problem of poverty in the entire world. The Mormon principle is called "Fast Offerings" and members of the Church are encouraged to donate a generous amount each month towards the maintenance of the poor and needy. It is not just the money given in the Fast Offering that makes the difference, but the emotional understanding of the plight of the poor that comes from an honest fast. This concept is the antithesis of Thoreau's independence from all mankind. It is an admission that we are all poor before God and that we should follow the example of Jesus Christ, our Savior in serving the needs of those less fortunate. Following the Lord Jesus Christ in this way would be truly revolutionary.

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