For the past year or so, I’ve been digging into Thoreau’s works. Not just Walden and Civil Disobedience, but his Journals, Cape Cod, A Plea for Captain John Brown, and other works. I’ve even read some Emerson and Whitman tangentially after discovering my love for all things Thoreau. Being very involved with technology, it’s hard for me to agree with everything that Thoreau has written, and I think he was wrong about quite a few things. His claim that it saves time to walk rather than take the railroad (or fly) is no longer true in the modern world. He also certainly had a romantic (see: wrong) view of how humans used to live in the wild.
But to me, his distaste for technology and his solitary living habits were not the overarching theme of his works. The theme is that the simple life is a wonderful life. Free from the constraints of society and making a living and making progress, Thoreau was able to discover moral truths for himself. Living slightly outside of society he could evaluate properly the true horror of slavery and the folly of the busy lives that we lead. And although the former is no longer a problem, the latter still is.
I guess one of the most important things I take away from Thoreau is that the work I do and the money I have accumulated mean very little in the grand scheme of things. I’ve always had a sense that I could quit and be a homeless man (a friendlier version of Diogenes), but I’ve never really been able to articulate why. It’s because I can still live a moral life. And while it’s good to advance our understanding of physics and logic, that doesn’t really matter in the end.