June 2, 2020 | Brian Chappell


When Mouse Books published excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, my blog post for the occasion attempted to strike a balance in terms of how we approach Thoreau. Namely, while his philosophy of disobedience provided a pathway for his intellectual inheritors such as Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, we must also reckon with the more “iconic” image of Thoreau as the “self-reliant” recluse. This reclusion, I argued, risks being repackaged (depending, perhaps, on who was your high school English teacher) as a white male fantasy of escape (one that I struggle to resist from time to time). 

The work of making this distinction continues with Walking. How to acknowledge Thoreau’s political maturity while resisting the temptation to project our fantasies of escape? One passage from the essay offers a useful litmus test. Here, Thoreau is discussing how human affairs quickly dissipate when one is on a walk: 

Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it. I sometimes direct the traveler thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road,—follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it; for it, too, has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar smoke of a man.

How to work with this passage? On the one hand, we should acknowledge that there is no escaping the political, and that one can not abdicate one’s interconnectedness to the totality of human life. On the other hand, the therapeutic benefits of walking, especially in that space that we call “Nature,” continue to be well-documented in medical and psychological research. On yet a third hand, Thoreau acknowledges the utter indifference of “Nature” toward the human, an indifference which may very well decide our fate as a species. 

Perhaps we can mitigate these distinctions by tweaking the word “politics.” In general, while Thoreau is certainly referring to the world of official polity, he is also, and this becomes clear in the second half of the essay, referring to the micro-politics of interpersonal conflict, much of which, when we step back, is not worth our precious time and energy. In fact, Thoreau seems to acknowledge that our disregard for our relationship with “Nature” in favor of obsession over our interpersonal conflicts will lead to our collective demise: 

Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man,—a sort of breeding in and in, which produces at most a merely English nobility, a civilization destined to have a speedy limit.

From here Thoreau initiates his critique of “civilization,” labeling it a hall-of-mirrors comprised of shallow manners and useless knowledge. In place of this kind of life, which will indeed (we are now witnessing for ourselves) have disastrous consequences for the collective, he extolls (in a nod to Socrates) the virtues of simplicity and a kind of humble un-knowing:

A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful—while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?

Have we not come upon a useful comment indeed about our age? As social and environmental conflict intensifies to cataclysmic proportions, how much can our “knowledge” really help us if it only exacerbates our interpersonal strife, which is the first domino? 

There is another litmus test, which was actually my original plan for this post. I was going to speak about how walking through my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., on the same route at the same pace, each day during the quarantine, has been a source of solace, perspective, etc. Much like Thoreau, I can literally forget about what was bothering me twenty minutes ago. But I was also going to speak about the “surreal” feeling of walking through a space that is now haunted by plague, the practice of avoiding people by taking a wide berth, the absurd paranoia of wondering whether I touched something I shouldn’t have, like a tree. But now I am reminded of what I should never forget: that in this country, the very act of safely walking through one’s own neighborhood is not a given for everyone. 

The inescapability of politics — it is possible that this is what it means to be human. Consequently, could not a good politics begin with ensuring that our natural (and our “civilized”) spaces are walkable, in solitude, for each one of us?