Throughout his book Walden, Thoreau seems to make a point of stating that most men “labor under a mistake” (5). He believes that they strive to attain those goals that are encouraged by society and tradition, the purchasing of a house, the gathering of money, without regard to that which will ultimately (and spiritually) benefit them. But times have changed since Thoreau wrote these words, a century and a half ago. So do Thoreau’s views still apply today? I believe that, for the most part, his words apply just as much today as they did so many generations ago.
Thoreau’s goal in conducting his experiment was to try to live a self-sufficient life, while doing that which he most enjoyed, that being, thinking about everything and anything. His belief is that people get caught up in society, or become indebted to it; they become unable to escape its demands, and so must live not within the realm of their choice but within society’s confines. He refers to the poor farmer, “well-nigh crushed and smothered under… [his] load, … one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot” (5) as an example of this. Today, there are relatively few farmers who own merely one hundred acres of land, and of those who do, many, ironically, are following their hearts in a Thoreau-esque expedition. Instead of being bound to the land, today’s workers are bound to the office. This work, if anything, is more enslaving; with farming, at least, one has the opportunity to obtain the spiritual benefit of raising something out of the bare earth, while the daily grind of paperwork offers no such potential rewards. So over time, things have, if anything, deteriorated. How can this be?; why have things gotten worse, despite Thoreau’s warnings? The fact that it’s nearly impossible to live a comfortable life in today’s society without going along with society’s expectations certainly plays a role. But the allure of the benefits of technology would likely draw us in regardless. It’s simply a construct of today’s reality that one can’t break away entirely from the norm, as Thoreau did, and still expect to live a reasonably comfortable life.
Even in Thoreau’s day, it was necessary to borrow a plot of land from a friend, Emerson, for this experiment; even Thoreau was living on borrowed ground, and with the drastic increase in world population of late, there isn’t today a whole lot of land left to lend. And as for his house, it probably would today be quite illegal for not conforming to any number of building codes (no smoke detectors, for example, and only one viable exit door), a situation that could not be remedied without the aid of society. The laws of society today are, consciously or otherwise, built to help us fall into the vicious cycle that Thoreau stands against, and to debunk any efforts to escape that cycle.
And it’s not as if we really need much help from laws and regulations to enter the cycle. We are exposed from the very beginning to whirring, clicking, and (more recently) talking and blinking gizmos, things that could never be made by hand, and must be purchased with money. We are taught that these things, these electronic gizmos, are “entertainment”; to get them, we must work to earn money. Hence we see that the modern-day repetition of the pattern Thoreau notes, “trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt, … still living, and dying, and buried by this other’s brass” (6) to be Work, work, and save up money, in the great hopes of spending it all on some gizmo that you will soon tire of, so that you can start to work all over again.
Sadly, Thoreau’s experiment probably could not be replicated today in full; the era of philosophical experimentation of that sort is over, for at least the time being. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to at least reach towards the ideal presented by Thoreau. Indeed, this book is more important today than ever before precisely because it is harder today to live life in this way. So then, in answer to the initial question: Yes, Thoreau’s views are clearly applicable today.