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Thoreau and the Primitivist Temptation

When Edward Abbey died, his friends honored his wishes. They stopped at a liquor store for a few cases of beer and loaded his body into the back of a pickup truck to take him into the desert. He didn’t want a coffin, a funeral, any pontificating or gnashing of teeth. He just want to be buried at some unknown place in the sand, where, as he put it, “I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.” It was a fitting send-off for a man whose very name became synonymous with the remote regions of the Southwest where he worked and which he chronicled in his books.

He’d come to the desert after finally having had enough of it: the commutes, the congested roads, the small-talk. So he moved by himself to a remote part of Utah and worked as a park ranger in Arches National Park, just north of Moab. Along the way, he wrote in his journal, and the entries, when compiled, would become the 1968 book Desert Solitaire. These 200 or so pages, highly critical of modern society and those who choose to remain part of it, would become the gospel of those who believed the solution to their problems was to “get off the grid.”

Abbey’s book is just one example in a sea of recent works of literature, film, and music, which romanticize the idea of leaving society behind to live—often alone—close to nature. There is Jon Krauker’s Into the Wild, which glorifies a young man who graduates from college, burns his money, and sets off alone in pursuit of, in his view, a more genuine, authentic existence. Initially, rather sympathetic to his journey, the film version ends with him in a less than ideal spot, writing that, “Happiness is best when shared.” The Kinks had their musical tribute to primitivism: “Apeman”: “In man’s evolution he has created the cities and/The motor traffic rumble, but give me half a chance/And I’d be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle.” Then, there is the host of television shows from Man vs. Wild to the Dutch program Adam Zkt. Eva, which romanticize the survivalist streak. When it comes to popular culture, there is a clear fascination with cutting off ties with family and friends and setting off alone to find a better way. In the age of social media and the college-to-corporate rat race, it’s little wonder these stories resonate as they do.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

But as captivating as these accounts might be, they’re likely leading us, particularly young people, astray. It’s hard to get through school in the United States without reading Henry David Thoreau, Abbey’s ideological predecessor—often more than once and with a more than sympathetic rendering. Virginia middle schools bear his name, and databases such as The Walden Woods Project provide a host of curriculum resources for elementary schools to special education programs to “English as a Second Language” groups.

And some take it even a step further. In Vermont, The Walden Project takes high school students and asks them to report to the woods to immerse them in “a more deliberate and simplified life.” When interviewed, the man behind the school, Matthew Schlein, suggested that it was a valuable venue for young people trying to find their way in the world: “I think Thoreau’s example inspires them, especially adolescents trying to find their identity, to establish an authentic sense of self in relation to larger questions.” But, for teens trying to find their place in the world, one wonders if such an anti-social message is the healthiest to send long-term.

Thoreau and Abbey do indeed have important points to make. Spending time alone outdoors can be refreshing, wholesome, and provide a clarity that is impossible when surrounded by busy daily life. Perhaps it is true that one can only understand society when away from it, and both are excellent writers. Lines in Thoreau such as, “…for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone” or Abbey’s “A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles” stand out. These lines might be perfect fodder for bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets, but perhaps it is precisely these catchy lines and knee-jerk claims that can lull readers into embracing some of the primitivists’ ideas without considering the implications of their assumptions and conclusions.

So the problem is not even that Thoreau and his intellectual counterparts are taught and celebrated as often as they are. Rather, they are rarely presented in context, especially in school curricula. Instead of being held-up as the rebellious streak in the Western tradition that they are, they are often presented as just ordinary thinkers in the canon. They are anything but. As the schools increasingly refrain from teaching Burke, Santanayana, and the like, the transcendentalists become freer and freer to take center stage. The life advice they offer represents a stark departure from what most of us would say makes for a good life. Instead of working to remedy those specific aspects of civilization that are problematic, why not throw the baby out with the bathwater and write off society in its entirety? But, given the frequency with which they’re taught, there is probably more than a small minority of young people, who might come to believe that rejecting society is an ideal for which to strive: that family and regular work are impediments to finding oneself.

There are some criticisms of Thoreau and his intellectual descendants floating around these days, but many miss the substance of the issue. While some pieces like Kathryn Schulz’s October, 2015 piece “Pond Scum” in the New Yorker do take aim at the content of Thoreau’s actual philosophy (while also hitting him personally), much of the current criticism of Thoreau himself, for instance, tends to focus on his personality, the fact that his mother did his laundry at times when he lived at Walden, or that he was allegedly rather cantankerous. Although ad hominem might be in vogue these days, it is likely better to re-up criticisms of his actual ideas.

The critiques of his (and his successors’) radicalism are indeed numerous. First, these writers condemn society without ever escaping the framework of it. For example, Abbey describes how he and a travel companion while sitting alone on the banks of the Colorado River miles from the nearest person spend their time “analyzing socioeconomic problems.” During that same conversation, they talk about how the women and children living in comfortable homes back in Albuquerque may have difficulty appreciating what they are enjoying: desert solitude. Even, in their time in solitude, they struggle to understand it except from within the paradigm of civilization. Perhaps it’s related to one of the great ironies of solitude: that one spends most of that time thinking about his relationships with others.

Next, they seem to contradict their self-professed indifference to the thoughts of others by needing to spring their ideas onto the world. For someone who doesn’t think much of those back home and their “self-imposed slavery to the clock,” Abbey’s efforts at reaching them seem to betray his centering on civilization. For all of Abbey’s detestation of society, the very impulse for writing his book and going through the effort to secure its publication seems to be a very social one. It’s not too dissimilar from what one French author meant when he wrote that solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.

There is much to be said also for participating in community and earning the esteem of peers. From Charles Taylor to recent research that says “the level of respect and admiration we receive from peers—not overall wealth or success—that more likely predicts happiness,” it seems that earning respect from others is an essential feature of a good life. This is not even to mention the satisfaction to be derived from fulfilling duties to others, from parents to children to siblings to friends. Or even in a more abstract form, there are the duties one has to traditions, the ideals set forth by ancestors and cultures. We might, thus, have reason to disregard James Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Deadalus when he suggests that, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

But most of all, these thinkers display a startling lack of gratitude for the tremendous achievements of society. From art to medicine, they shrug off the innovations society has offered. Instead, they seem to elevate a life of swatting bugs and pitching tents over living well in community with others. For centuries, we have fought to triumph over nature—now only to return to it in its cruelest form. And, instead of respecting the cumulative collection of what countless bright people have argued makes for a good and complete life, they prefer to leave it all behind in favor of figuring it out for themselves in the woods.

A good relationship with the natural world is likely an essential feature of a life well-lived, but Abbey and the neo-“Thoreaueans” take it too far. Instead of advocating a balanced relationship between nature and society, they suggest leaving daily life entirely. Abbey even squarely takes aim at the tourists, who visit the desert instead of living there, describing their interactions with nature as almost disingenuous and dismissing them as no more than “sardines in cans.” Again, so much for half-measures.

As the final scene of the film version of Into the Wild conveys, loneliness and a less than ideal outcome often accompany those who decide they’re better off on their own. The more mature course of action is likely to find a way to live in community with others while also enjoying and appreciating nature. There is likely a middle ground to be struck between the depths of the rat race mentality (calculating the opportunity cost of attending a picnic and having one’s thoughts ruled by the ping of a text message or email) and living by oneself as a hermit in a shack in the desert. Perhaps the tourists who visit the park for just a few weeks, the tourists Abbey is so critical of, were onto something after all.

 

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder at Merion West, a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization. He also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on the intersection of media and politics and studied political science at Yale. You can follow him on Twitter @erichprince

Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash

77 Comments

  1. dirk says

    All religions originate in a cave (islam), a mountain (christianity) or under a tree (Buddha), and always in pure isolation . Even the first christian monks preferred that ambience. However, whatever inspired them there, they did not keep that entirely for themselves, it was preached to the masses and the city folk lateron (who, left on themselves in village and city, never come to something inspiring and new). Simeon the stylite (ca AD 400) sat on a pillar in the midst of the desert, but he got food (as was the case with Mohammed in his cave, Jesus did not need that, he could make bread out of stones) from normal, social folk that realised that he was up for new horizons. It looks like, development of morals and lifestyle need deserts and caves, or the bush of Thoreau of course.

    • Whyaxye says

      Interestingly, the canonical account of the Buddha’s enlightenment (Samyutta Nikaya 6.1, and elsewhere) claims that the Buddha was initially reluctant to communicate his insight to anyone else. It is exceptionally difficult to understand, and trying to make it comprehensible to ignorant worldlings would lead to his personal vexation.

      “the Blessed One reflected thus, his mind inclined to dwelling at ease, not to teaching the Dhamma…”

      The religion, as opposed to the personal liberation of one man, was the result of divine intervention. The chief of the gods was concerned that beings in this age would miss the opportunity for a similar enlightenment, and prevailed upon the newly-liberated Buddha to teach others.

    • lsimike says

      Before preaching about “all religions,” you should consider the possibility that you don’t now what you are talking about. Exactly how did Christianity start on a mountain in pure isolation? Jesus was a member of a family and a community. He called disciples to follow him, though he would also go off to pray on his own. Jesus never made bread from stones. In fact, that was one of the temptations of the devil that he specifically rejected during his 40 days in the desert.

      With that being said, there is much to consider about the role of desert and isolation, which forces one to confront one’s inner demons and focus on that which is most essential. Carthusian monks spend most of their lives in complete silence, but they live in community. The difference with, say, a Buddhist monk is that the Christian monk feels himself an integral part of the Church and prays for it and with it.

      Broad and inaccurate generalizations are not very useful here.

      • dirk says

        He wouldn’t have been tempted, if this devil would know he couldn’t, Isimike, he also once made good wine out of water, and multiplied 3 or 4 fishes and breads into thousands, so I wonder about your criticism here. Also, I wonder whether you know about the force and potentials of isolation and seclusion (just read Thoreau about it), and I didn’t mention even Moses, on top of a mountain, pure seclusion, directly from God himself, so, not in a community or something, nohow, the crowds were dancing around a golden calf (in bible and koran), that’s what communities do.

        One of the very few lectures I followed of the humanities, long ago, was by a famous sociologist on the virtues of monks in isolation, as the Simeon I mentioned, he was looked after by well meaning people, but also asked for advice (even by the emperor himself), so there was symbiosis between the seclusion and the community, please, more concern and respect for the Holy Ones, our spiritual Fathers, the messengers of all religions, and the necessary conditions for such revelations and inspiration.

        • Dirk

          You are onto something – a religion begins as an encounter with powers greater than ourselves. How this “revelation” is interpreted involves a poetic act, the individual’s imaginative response to greater forces Overtime what began as a creative act becomes formalized and institutionalized into a set of beliefs.

          The value of an experience of “wilderness” is that it removes the individual from the inherited conventions and prejudices of society. Only by this or other kinds of separation or discipline is revelation possible.

          I believe the author is somewhat correct about Edward Abbey resenting modern society (see Earth First movement) and simply romanticizing nature, but Thoreau is more subtle and complex. Thoreau understood his own clarity involved a degree of removal from society, this is not a rejection of society.

          • dirk says

            Apart of religion, CA, I can’t imagine any nature lover or environmentalist, sensing rejection of society in Thoreau’s experience and writings, unless in some aspects, however, from climate deniers , Ayn Rand admirors and anti-environmentalists it is easy to figure out such stances, and whereas I think quite a few of them are regular Quillette visitors, not so strange, this rejection (also in these comments). About religion itself: I agree of course, that’s how I see it also.

    • Payton Holland says

      dirk, I think you nailed it there. In addition to that short list, Nietzsche describes Zarathustra as dwelling mostly on a mountain and or in a cave. Zarathustra, an illustration of the over-man, is always instinctively drawn to the wilderness. However, after a long time in isolation, Zarathustra feels that his fountain is overflowing, and though he is hesitant, he must share his wisdom with the people. This contradiction of wishing for isolation for the process of becoming and then being drawn back to the people is a large part of the ebb and flow of “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. Becoming and creating require isolation.

      • dirk says

        The metaphore of a richly overflowing fountain has been used by Goethe to depicture the many virtues and originalities of Alexander von Humboldt, the great inspiration of Thoreau, especially after the failures of his first trials of the Journals and Week on the Concord. The metaphore was extended by suggesting to anybody who likes to enlarge his horizon, to just put a vessel under one of the flowing streams and let it be filled by more of his knowledge and inspiration. Not real religion, but comes close to it.

  2. Holly says

    What you have attempted to philosophically dissect, are simply the thoughts and writings of men who have been “called” to a place in nature, away from distractions & shallow pettiness, to journey inward, to commune with God & all creation. I know….

    • This article leaves me with the distinct impression that the author has only a passing familiarity with the life and writing of Edward Abbey.

  3. Tim Weiss says

    Thoreau lived in the cabin for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days of his 46 years. It was less than a mile from the center of town. He was not a hermit. As he said, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” He went to Walden to get perspective on society, then he returned to a more conventional life. “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” To portray him as a hermit and advocate for abandoning society is not accurate, and misses his point.

    • Leo Strauss says

      You make a fair point!

      I suppose though, that the author’s purpose was ultimately to attack the “ism” that emerges from a juvenile reading of Walden. It is very easy not to see the facts that you call to our attention and only remember a romantic impression of life in the woods.

      Another purpose of the article is to say that books that more obviously call our attention to our duties to others don’t make the cut very often.

      For my part, I have tried to read Walden 3 times and found Thoreau too insufferable to get to the end. Give me an American novelist (Wharton, Melville, Ellison, Faulkner, etc) over Thoreau any day.

      • Tim says

        Thanks for your thoughts. I do think Thoreau’s message can be misinterpreted, especially by the young. I’m sure I used his philosophy to evade certain responsibilities myself! But it wasn’t Thoreau’s fault. So I agree with the author that Thoreau in the wrong hands can be dangerous. But his message to the mature is very serious, even solemn.

        I don’t think I have ever made it through Walden either. His journals are where to find him. I think you would find them worthwhile. A selection titled “I to Myself” is excellent.

        Thanks for the list of novelists.

        • Leo Strauss says

          Interesting; I suppose I assumed that his journals more or less became Walden. I will have to check them out!

          And, I do take your main point seriously: just because Thoreau is being taught badly, doesn’t mean that he has to be taught badly. That is, even though there is a romantic impression that the book might give off, it doesn’t follow that Thoreau is simply naive. The fact that there are three chairs, as you say, implies that he does want to keep talking to those who remain within society AND that Thoreau must not see himself as entirely outside of society. It would make sense that a good author like Thoreau wouldn’t have one simplistic message (i.e., reject society in an unqualified way), but, that even if he leaned one direction, he would be aware that there are tensions or that things cannot be that simple.

          • Tim says

            Thanks again for your thoughts. He wouldn’t have written a book if he didn’t care about his neighbors. Why would he bother if he didn’t care about American society? “Civil Disobedience” is clear evidence that he did care deeply. He was not a simpleton.

            He mined the journals for Walden, but I think you hear his real voice in the journals.

      • dirk says

        @ Leo: it would be wrong to read Thoreau purely for the poetry or literature, his message was of another intricacy, that of Rousseau’s Promeneur (see elsewhere on Q.), and, more so even, of Humboldt’s Nature Views (Thoreau knew Humboldt almost by heart, and anglicised his writings more or less, fit for the American ears and senses).

    • Aristodemus says

      Even Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”) didn’t retreat the wilderness, as many were falsely led to believe. He lived in a cabin just outside a small town in Montana with a library and other modern amenities.

  4. dirk says

    I wonder how many Walden’s there are in the world. We had one by author and psychiatrist Frederic van Eeden, in Russia you have the Anastasia communities of few people somewhere far away in the tunda or bush. There must be (or have been) many of them worldwide, but I wonder whether they are augmenting, or just dieing a slow death.

  5. E. Olson says

    I think very few people today could survive in the wild woods any longer than the hour capacity of their iPhone battery. No power outlet, no cell phone connection = no go.

    • dirk says

      @ E.O.: because of my age, I’ve lived most of my life without an iPhone, and can’t say that my life is so much happier or better since I have one now. Moral: you just join the crowd and the available gadgets, in fact, because my battery is empty since 1 month, my life is much quieter again. More time to reflect, and less disturbed by nonsense.

      • E. Olson says

        dirk – I may be the only person on the planet with an iPhone (from work) that has no apps installed and is used only for actual calls and the VERY occasional short SMS (I hate small keyboards). I lived most of my life before mobile phones, and could easily go back.

  6. Emmanuel says

    French writer Sylvain Tesson wrote a fairly good book about the 6 months he spent mostly alone in a small cabin in a remote part of Siberia. He spent most of his time fishing and getting drunk. From time to time he was visited by tough Russian men who led a similar existence and they got drunk together. That account strikes me as much more realistic that every romantic text ever written about solitude in the wilderness.

    • dirk says

      That’s one experience Emmanuel, of a male russian just for 6 months, just also look for the Youtube moovie of a certain Agafia in Siberia, she lived there for 70 yrs and was even born in that complete isolation, but seems to do rather well, growing her own food, cutting wood for warmth, milking the goat. It all depends of course, not everybody can stand such a life, probably less than 1%. Some deliberately looking for it (like Thoreau, Simeon, the hero from Krakauer’s), but others just out of tradition or necessity. That last case makes it completely different of course, no more spirituality and type writing, just hard and boring land life.

    • Tim Weiss says

      Thoreau didn’t get drunk at Walden, or anywhere. The time at Walden was not a lark. He was there with a purpose, and he was productive. But I agree with the author that Thoreau’s message can be misinterpreted and used to justify larks and abdications.

  7. Allan Revesz says

    “Where did you get your axe” o good question for any primitavist

    • James West says

      Exactly. What these folks -really- want is all of the advantages of civiliation (high quality goods, availability of medical care, etc.), and none of the costs. So would we all!

  8. Chris Lalmond says

    I think that Thoreau and Abbey were very different people, but they were both advocates for living a life of authenticity. I don’t think that either would have taken issue with a person or a family living an authentic lifestyle in the city or immersed in civilization. I think that both authors appreciated humanity so much that they were brave enough to call on us to elevate ourselves by living more honestly and valuing each other and nature by a higher standard.

  9. Adrienne says

    He spent time alone and time with folks while on Walden. He often walked to town and spoke with people. He wrote about walking in the dark, growing beans and the comforts of a simple home. He talked about gossip. He talked about being present. I believe he wanted perspective on being a member of society and being a whole human.

    • dirk says

      Doesn’t exist Sam, the name is Santayana, Spanish/American philosopher, neither Krauker exists, the right name is Krakauer.

      • Sam W. says

        Don’t tell me! Tell Erich and the proofreaders at Quillette!

    • Tersitus says

      The guy who famously noted that those who fail to learn from history end up repeating it.

  10. Doug says

    This piece misses the heart of Thoreau’s thought. He lived a border life….not against civilization but against stagnant civilization. Like the Cynics, he aimed to awaken folks to the possibilities of re-civilizing. Caricatures, whether romanticized or critical, are not helpful. Better to read the books. And Santayana was no less critical of American culture than Thoreau. Best to read carefully.

  11. “(Abbey had) come to the desert after finally having had enough of it: the commutes, the congested roads, the small-talk. So he moved by himself to a remote part of Utah and worked as a park ranger in Arches National Park, just north of Moab.”

    A national park created and maintained, his salary covered, by tax revenues taken from people who commuted on congested roads so that Edward Abbey would not starve while he was getting away from them and their wretched small-talk.

    One imagines an odor of sanctity seeping up from a hole in the sand somewhere out in the desert, surrounded by empty beer cans.

    • Kathy Hix says

      Morgan: A little harsh, but basically what I was thinking, too, as I read.

  12. I remember reading `Walden’ in university, but later on became a sceptic about David Thoreau, who after all, if he really wanted to `get back to nature’ could’ve joined several million of his own countrywomen and men, and migrants as well, in the great movement to the western territories… that would’ve tested his ideals about the corruptions of civilizations. What he would’ve learned is that, real wilderness conditions, people have to stick together and there is no room for solitude. Instead, he opted to move two or three miles from town, and live on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson for a while… the more general fact is that no one can really leave behind civilization or technology in general; http://anatomyofculture.blogspot.com/2015/05/no-one-is-luddite.html

    • dirk says

      What about Robinson Crusoe, RB? A mental experiment and literary masterpiece,well read then and even now. How to live on your own! Is it possible at all? It must have put mankind to think, there were even experiments on what the original language was, with 2 kids grown up in isolation. But, even Robinson had his Friday, of course. And Thoreau even many more than 1 Friday. He had millions of Fridays.

      • Robinson Crusoe was, of course, a fictional character, albeit based on a real person who was stranded for several years. But the real desert-island person was left for only four years, I believe, whereas Crusoe was marooned for twenty-eight, if my memory serves me well. Also, it was an involuntarily thing for Crusoe, and for the person upon whom he was based. The latter readily wen back to civilization as soon as he could.

      • dirk says

        But, I realise now, about those millions, that was much later, and even only after his death. His Walden was not appreciated by the general public at his time, he found only with difficulty a publisher and the first print of 1000 took many years to get sold out. So, the temptation of the wild , seclusion and the primitive was as negatively received then, as it seems to be right now here in these comments. Small wonder where little sympathy may be expected for the case of environmentalism.

  13. “There is Jon Krauker’s Into the Wild, which glorifies a young man who graduates from college, burns his money, and sets off alone in pursuit of, in his view, a more genuine, authentic existence.”

    I read Krakauer’s Into The Wild and while I’m generally an admirer of his work, I finished the book thinking that there was nothing very authentic or even interesting about the subject, Christopher McCandless.

    It seemed to me that Krakauer was trying hard – too hard – to make McCandless fit into a box labeled “Star Child”. Someone of almost mystical spirituality who was too gentle, too good, to live long in this wicked, material world.

    Perhaps it’s Krakauer’s fault more than McCandless, but I thought the McCandless of the book was an irritating twit who would have been miserable company on a long, cross-country car ride.

    But Krakauer wanted a candidate who was new and contemporary, I suppose, not an historical figure already covered by other writers. He probably thought McCandless was the best he could do.

    • Farris says

      McCandless had more confidence than brains. The gentleman who dropped him at trail head noticed McCandless had the wrong boots and gave him his own. I’m sure McCandless was a fair outdoorsman. His fate is what becomes of fair outdoorsmen.

  14. dmm says

    Sounds to me like the author is such a collectivist that he can’t stand the thought of anyone enjoying an extended leave of absence from the borg, much less them writing a critique of it. A few comments:

    “…they’re likely leading us, particularly young people, astray. It’s hard to get through school in the United States without reading Henry David Thoreau…”

    My god, save the children! They’re reading Thoreau! It’s the curse of semi-individualism! Oh, the horror!

    I’d like to see him avoid reading state-sponsored state-glorifying textbooks in those same schools.

    “The life advice they offer represents a stark departure from what most of us would say makes for a good life.”

    Obviously they don’t agree with “most of us”. Does that hurt your feelings?

    “Instead of working to remedy those specific aspects of civilization that are problematic, why not throw the baby out with the bathwater and write off society in its entirety?”

    Strawman. Did they write off society entirely? Did they suggest it? I don’t know about Abbey, but Thoreau certainly did not. And if you think your writing is “working to remedy” this atrocious individualistic pestilence so deeply ingrained in our school curriculum, why can you not consider their writing was working to remedy other problems in society? The very fact that they did write shows their interest in improving society. Ah, I see. You can’t even conceive that their writing was an effort to better the lives of others, because their ideas are so antithetical to your borg mindset.

    “…it seems that earning respect from others is an essential feature of a good life.”

    Oh, so that’s what you’re trying to do. Fail.

    You bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep utopian bleeeeeeeep good lifers can bleeeeeeeeeeep! When will you get it through your bleeeeeeeep heads: everyone’s idea of a good life is not the same!

    “This is not even to mention the satisfaction to be derived from fulfilling duties to others, from parents to children to siblings to friends. Or even in a more abstract form, there are the duties one has to traditions, the ideals set forth by ancestors and cultures.”

    Or the satisfaction of forcing others to do their duties, or at least shaming them when they don’t.

    Typical authoritarian black/white thinking borg bleep collectivist.

  15. Interesting points you address here, nevertheless you have to understand that there are people that is just not confortable within their communitiy and they might not pursue , for example, “earning the stemm of peers”. Those people suffer their whole life, because in the end there is not a plausible exit other than (social and /or physical) death.

    • dirk says

      What I once came across somewhere; Thoreau did not care much about what people thought of him and his lifestyle (though, he didn’t like the critical remarks of Emerson, his landlord and tutor). Should he have listened better and more to them (and this accounts for every original artist, author and maybe even scientist), his cabin would have been left after some days, his beans left unharvested, his works would never have been written down, and our kids would not have known about a Walden, or any other Journals or lectures on Walking. We just would have proceeded in mediocrity, consumerism and the like.

  16. Tersitus says

    Quillette— thanks for giving us an article on the consummate antiSocialists. A much needed change of pace.

  17. david of Kirkland says

    The reality is that most of humanity does this already. Billions live in rural areas. Billions live in cities without being stuck their devices over other people or nature.

  18. Tersitus says

    As a child of the Fifties and Sixties I grew up walking and hunting and camping the fields and woods, fishing the ponds and streams, climbing the rocks and mountains of this country’s central region, most always with a couple of friends and family. At home, alone in my upstairs room, I read— Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Jack London, Tarzan, whatever YA adventure my library yielded. Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain (the story of a boy who runs away to the woods and lives by his wits) ruled my imagination for years. In my early college years, I discovered Thoreau, and found my hero— not just the Thoreau of Walden, but the war and tax protester of “Civil Disobedience,” and the writer of an inspirational prose calling me to stand up, find my own path and my true self. I was entranced.

    Of course it was largely the romantic foolishness of youth— but the back to nature movement growing at that time would very probably have found me lost and wandering in it’s ranks. I picked up books by the Angiers, and pondered whether I could build a cabin on my own, or teepee, or treehouse, how I would eat, what environment best suited.
    (And, for the record, in later life I once lived for a year in a woods and hills cabin without running water or heat, my nearest neighbors in a similar cabin and a teepee.)

    Then I got drafted. I soon found myself stationed half a world away smack in the middle of a city of millions and a culture utterly foreign. Over the next two years I learned more about myself and my fellow humans and the world than college classes, books, and lectures ever yielded. One of the things that I learned was that I enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow soldiers and civilians, American and Korean, on duty and off, every bit as much as I had that of my college friends. Another was that I found I enjoyed wandering for hours by myself, week after week, exploring the medieval maze of hills and unmapped dirt and stone streets and walled houses and shops of strange neighborhoods, all teeming with people whose language I could barely penetrate, but whose simple lifestyle I found fascinating. I was always half lost but never feared of finding my way. I hiked one weekend with a Korean friend to a Buddhist temple and monastery on a high hilltop miles outside the city. But mostly I found I could be alone just as easily— much easier— in the middle of a city as in the forests and mountains. I’ve covered a lot of miles and some part of the world since. I camped and hiked all over Europe, often solo but just as often with whoever I met along the way.

    Those were my salad days. I still enjoy Thoreau’s prose, but I don’t read him much anymore. Now I go backpacking, a couple of times solo, but much more regularly with a few friends— we go often to the Ozark mountain trails, equally often to the canyons and deserts Abbey loved. The siren song he and Thoreau heard and sang is still to be felt and heard there. It keeps pulling us back. We go at all seasons— but we watch the weather and have been known to flee to the nearest town, get a room and shower and a steak and shake dinner— then go back to the trail when the sun shines. And, as any who visits them knows, the people one meets on the trails of our national parks come from all over the country and the world.

    These days I take my minimalist urges in the form of ultralight packing. How much do I really need, how little can I get by with? It’s a satisfaction in itself, and easier on the body. And we never fail to enjoy that first hot shower and all-you-can eat buffet on the road trip home.

    • dirk says

      Quite possible Tersitus, that without the influence (direct or indirect) of Thoreau (and other heremits such as John Muir and G.P.Marsh), you never would have gone backpacking through those forests, rocks, hilltops and mountains, and have learned to enjoy it there so much. There was a time that people simply shut the windows when traveling through wild and uncultivated rough mountain landscapes, and only opened these after arriving at their civilised hotels or spa’s.

      • Tersitus says

        Yeah, dirk, I always suspect those bubble people of being part of “…the mass of men (that) lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maybe l’m wrong, but I’m not particularly desperate, and I’m seldom quiet unless I’m in the outdoors. The overpowering silence of a windless night in Canyonlands is unforgettable— a deeply religious experience. Now imagine a half dozen of us around a fire deep in the Ozarks late on election night, 2016. Then one opened his smartphone and got a signal….

      • dirk says

        I fear, I was too quick to categorise Marsh (of Man and Nature, the bible of environmentalist movement), too quick as a hermit, he was, at times, but mostly a respected politician (republican), ambassador and philologist, a fabulous man!

    • Tersitus says

      Check your local libraries for The Language Animal, The Secular Age (as a younger man he published a book on Hegel).

  19. Farris says

    Communal living was one of the earliest survival skills, it pre-dates the use of fire. Living in communities allowed the inhabitants to reap the benefits of each other’s hunting and gathering success, to share knowledge and provide for common protection. Communal living increased efficiency through division of labor and allowed for progress.
    Mountain men of the western United States and Canada often lived lives of solitude but one of their greatest pleasures was The Rendezvous, where they could mingle, drink and fraternize with women. Most mountain men died of amoebic dysentery. The more and better man conquered nature, the longer he lived and the more he progressed. Nature is hard, it is full of dangers, inclement weather and pestilence. The best thing about nature is having the luxury to escape and retreat from it whenever one desires. I use to spend up to two weeks per year off in the wilderness with friends. It was wonderful but the best thing about it was we could return to civilization whenever we desired. I would recommend rural living, where one has most of the modern day conveniences but nature is right out the back door. And if one is truly fortunate, he can even escape rural living head to a city, take in a show and enjoy some fine cuisine. Beats the hell out removing ticks or worrying about frostbite.

  20. Lightning Rose says

    Perhaps the value of reading Thoreau today is validation that it’s OK to unplug from the hive-mind once in awhile, kick back in the grass, stare at the clouds and actually contemplate the meaning of life. At a time when you hear insidious rumblings from the nanny-state about actually medicalizing solitude for the greater glory of mandated collectivism, the message may be a life-affirming “tune in, turn on, drop out!” 😉

  21. markbul says

    “Although ad hominem might be in vogue these days, it is likely better to re-up criticisms of his (Thoreau’s) actual ideas.”

    Pointing out to fan-boys that Thoreau’s Walden cabin was in a town settled for two hundred years, or that he had a women doing his laundry while he considered his navel is hardly ‘ad hominem.’ It simply corrects the hagiography that dominates the Thoreau myth. While men and women were crossing the continent is search of wild lands to settle. Thoreau was sitting in an old, settled down, safe – as the Brits say – as houses. His explorations were to Cape Cod and Maine. So his ‘nature’ was hardly natural – it was safe, and made safe by the civilization he rejected.

  22. Caligula says

    Primitivism is somewhat like a roller-coaster ride. The ride feels dangerous but it’s fun because we assume it’s safe: the thrill of adrenalin without the nastiness of real danger.

    And so, too, the primitive: it’s fun precisely because we know we can leave whenever we wish (as well as because we bring many of civilization’s comforts in with us).

    And should something go wrong with the roller-coaster, or with our primitivist experience, well, then it can stop being fun very, very fast. Even that utopian intentional-living commune didn’t seem quite so great after the food ran out and the cholera came.

  23. johno says

    In this day and age of identity politics, red herrings, and all sorts of self deceptive thought patterns, Thoreau and Abbey are actually quite refreshing in their self examination… another habit that has definitely gone out of vogue.

    It’s not primitivism per se, it’s more the suspension of distractions.

    One doesn’t have to seek out a forest or a desert to do that, although both serve the purpose quite nicely.

    • dirk says

      Exactly, Johno, citing from his Journals: ” our limbs indeed have room enough but it is our souls that rust in a corner. Let us migrate interiorly without intermission…….Nature is a wizard. The Concord nights are stranger than the Arabian nights” ( and this Concord were just only the suburbs).

  24. Fickle Pickle says

    What could be more primitive than Donald Trump!

    And he lives in the “belly of the beast”, namely New York City which was, and still is, the leading edge manifestation of the now world dominant power-and-control-seeking techno civilization.

  25. X. Citoyen says

    I don’t see a real problem here. As others have suggested, it looks like collectivist lifestyle policing. I also agree that your interpretation of Thoreau is jaundiced.

    Anyway, a sensible person (e.g., a conservative) doesn’t look at the ideal but the alternatives. The kids heading out to “get in touch with nature” is much better than them joining the flock of social justice harpies—and by a long shot. I’d even wager that the more spirited among the kids are flocking to Thoreau as an alternative to harpydom—but, again, that’s just speculation and probably a little wishful thinking.

    Maybe I’ll go further and call the glass half full. Getting out of the cities might put these kids in contact with the world outside the bubble. Isn’t it a liberal mantra that mixing with the other is the surest way to dispel prejudice?

    • Peter says

      The whole tone of the article comes across as someone with an ideological axe to grind. Not to say that Thoreau belongs in the pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers or writers, but Martin Luther King and Ghandi were both influenced by what he had to say. Also, the article reminded me of something Camille Paglia had to say in her book “Sexual Persona”. I can’t quote her because I can’t find the book, but at some point she is reflecting on the great cities of the world, past and present. She acknowledges the beautiful, towering structures and monuments to the gods, to commerce, progress and civilization. Then at some point she cleverly reinvites the reader to remember that only an inch beneath our manicured suburban lawns, golf course fairways, concrete sidewalks, and skyscrapers, there is a teeming world of worms, ants, maggots, and all manner of scary looking microscopic creatures and we never have to see then or think about them anymore. Technology and progress will always be in our future but so will nature. Both are powerful forces that have something important to say to us. Some people spend too much time sitting behind computer screens in air conditioned buildings.
      .

      • dirk says

        I must think, Peter, Camille has read her Thoreau very well and profited a lot of it, but, likely, I,m called a sexist now!

  26. Fickle Pickle says

    Speaking of primitivism why not check out this site which features many essays that question the totalizing power-and-control-seeking momentum of our techno civilization.
    Unfortunately it has not been updated since 2002 because there has been much more grist-for-the-mill to strengthen and affirm their collective critique of our collective psychosis
    http://www.primitivism.com

    Under the same topic of the return of primitivism the benighted philosophy and “culture” advocated by the benighted Ayn Rand is one of the principal vectors of our now collective psychosis.

    • dirk says

      In Ayn Rand, I see the exact opposite of Thoreau. For her, greed is good is the big mantra, for Thoreau, avarice, the disproportional focus on money and city life needed a Humboldtian counterpart: Walden.

  27. Kauf Buch says

    (Nothing But) Flowers – Talking Heads

    Here we stand
    Like an Adam and an Eve
    Waterfalls
    The Garden of Eden
    Two fools in love
    So beautiful and strong
    The birds in the trees
    Are smiling upon them
    From the age of the dinosaurs
    Cars have run on gasoline
    Where, where have they gone?
    Now, it’s nothing but flowers

    There was a factory
    Now, there are mountains and rivers
    You got it, you got it
    We caught a rattlesnake
    Now, we got something for dinner
    We got it, we got it
    There was a shopping mall
    Now, it’s all covered with flowers
    You’ve got it, you’ve got it
    If this is paradise
    I wish I had a lawnmower
    You’ve got it, you’ve got it

    Years ago
    I was an angry young man
    I’d pretend
    That I was a billboard
    Standing tall
    By the side of the road
    I fell in love
    With a beautiful highway
    This used to be real estate
    Now, it’s only fields and trees
    Where, where is the town?
    Now, it’s nothing but flowers

    The highways and cars
    Were sacrificed for agriculture
    I thought that we’d start over
    But I guess I was wrong, hey

    Once there were parking lots
    Now, it’s a peaceful oasis
    You got it, you got it
    This was a Pizza Hut
    Now, it’s all covered with daisies
    You got it, you got it
    I miss the honky tonks
    Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens
    You got it, you got it
    And as things fell apart
    Nobody paid much attention
    You got it, you got it

    I dream of cherry pies
    Candy bars and chocolate chip cookies
    You got it, you got it
    We used to microwave
    Now, we just eat nuts and berries
    You got it, you got it
    This was a discount store
    Now, it’s turned into a cornfield
    You got it, you got it
    Don’t leave me stranded here
    I can’t get used to this lifestyle

  28. i think everyone knows that at walden thoreau just used the woods as his back garden. he went into town everyday, saw people, gossiped like a valley girl at a mall… came back, chopped wood for emerson; had some thoughts. taking him at his word, my generation — the goofy reaction to war-tired parents trying to normal, went off into the woods to find our own war or ourselves or be someone else with someone else nd be cooler for it. it meant nothing — a migration of lemmings. after the fad was over, the greedy came back to sell cars, or write books about the experience and get jobs teaching writing. the rest just came back and became a, how to say, overly-needy market for adult nursery songs pop.

    we’re all dying out. the urge to eat shrubs and become buddha became a marketing campaign almost immediately. woodstock was a commercial event, the people who went to it went mostly for the glamor and free product samples.

  29. volt voort says

    “I think that I love society as much as most…I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the barroom, if my business called me thither…I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof.” ——–Walden
    Yes, the cabin was near town,a fact which constitutes the favorite specious debunking of Thoreau, except….he himself makes a point of emphasizing the propinquity, and explaining that that is very much the point.
    He was a Stoic, with the usual Stoic appreciation of friendship, &c.
    Read him, I suggest. Look elsewhere if you need to construct a strawman, or better yet refrain from constructing one.

  30. No. Just No. You’ve completely mis-characterized Thoreau’s relationship to Nature, Society and Solitude. And yes, his mother did his laundry while he lived on Walden Pond, and he went home every Sunday to eat. He also spent much of those two years working in town as a surveyor. He gave talks at the Concord Lyceum while living at Walden. He entertained scores of Concordians at his cabin, people who walked out from town to say hi. The damn railroad ran within site of his cabin. And these things weren’t inconsistent with what he was doing at Walden.

    The idea that Thoreau was some sort of hermit hiding from his Concord peers in some cabin deep in the woods is ridiculous.

    The point is this: he wasn’t attempting to live in solitude, away from society. Rather, he was attempting to carve out a quiet place where he could interact with Nature free of background noise and where he could learn to differentiate what was essential from what wasn’t. The genius of Thoreau is that he found a way to do so while still remaining emmeshed in Concord society. He gives us a template to do the same even now. That’s why people still read him.

    • dirk says

      Bravo J.on the lawn, agree completely, and really don’t understand all these halfhearted punches here, but, for a psychologist, must be interesting stuff. Myself, also try to understand, but will take some time!

      • Dirk: thank you. If you’d like to understand Thoreau, read Laura Dessow Walls’ excellent recent bio – Thoreau: A Life, published by the university of Chicago Press in 2017. Ms. Walls does an exceptional job of putting Thoreau in proper context. In addition to being an impressive work of scholarship, its a great read.

        • dirk says

          Thanks, yes that Laura, also came across of her name in the literature list of Andrea Wulfs book on Humboldt, both women are great admirors of Humboldt, and try to revitalize interest in him. I wonder how Thoreau and Humboldt are doing in the interest field of conservatives, I must think rather well, though, this does not appear so in the above comments. I wonder why. Would they do better among progressivists (see newest thread) ??

  31. blue bus driver says

    Words can say stuff.

    Nature lacks words.

    It’s doing is done in silence.

    We crave that shit.

    But fear being lonely.

  32. aaron says

    My God, Prince doesn’t understand these authors; Abbey especially.

    The call to nature and solitude is for the benefit of the individual soul and in turn society; to add perspective and enlighten one to the nature of being in this world. All aspects of humanity are amplified alone in the wild. As is the appreciation of civilization and the understanding that it needs to be nurtured and protected.

    Throw yourself into the wild and return when you are dirty, beaten, and bloody, then will truly appreciate society.

  33. David says

    Prince sees the “primitivism” impulse as some kind of coherent philosophy that could present a social threat. He fears that reading Thoreau will “lead young people astray”. He fears “if such an anti-social message is the healthiest”. Nature, he says, can be “refreshing and wholesome” (I’m glad Thoreau did not write that way), but that young people might be lulled to the “primitivist ideal”, a term which he doesn’t really define. You would think that here Thoreau was, like Socrates, being accussed of corrupting the youth.
    To come to these conclusions, as Prince does, you would have read Thoreau’ s Walden as a how to survivalist manual, or as Plato’s Republic for the declaration of a societal ideal. Reading Thoreau , I never once thought of him as declaring a complete social program, or that I should live in my neighbour’s woods for a couple years. I enjoy him mostly for his nature writting. For him to sneer at the funny doings of mankind is not a bad side project and it won’t irreparably harm our youth. Settle down Prince.

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