Social Sensitivity

Thoreau considered himself a reformer, and he genuinely wanted to change human lives for the better. He was distressed by the poverty he saw in the Concord area, but was convinced that the answer to poverty was not philanthropy. Thoreau felt a personal responsibility for the poor but believed that the inner person had to change before gifts or donations would do any good. So he preached to those poor people he met on his walks.

“We need the tonic of wildness…” Thoreau says in the chapter of Walden entitled “Spring.” He was a pioneer conservationist who insisted that the primitive, wild side of human nature required the wildness of nature as a counterpart. He predicted that the exploitation of the West was inevitable once the business interests of the country realized that they could obtain resources there. He admits in Walden that he has a grudging admiration for the energy of commercial enterprises, but feels that it is energy applied for all the wrong reasons. At the end of the section of the book called “The Ponds,” he says to his contemporaries: “Talk of heaven! Ye disgrace earth.”

For a book that, on its surface, seems like a sentimental discussion of human interaction with nature, Walden has stirred deep resentment and critical attack from both individuals and governments. Critics who have disliked Walden object to Thoreau’s belief that the individual rights of human beings take precedence over all other considerations. For Thoreau, society, no matter how benevolent, is a threat to the self-sufficient individual; Thoreau is dogmatically independent. When combined with his other views of society, particularly his support for “civil disobedience” in which he believes people may justly break “bad” laws, his idealism has both inspired and thwarted revolutionary movements.

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