Thoreau was not a do-gooder (Walden 40)

“Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good which society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation; and I believe that a like but infinitely greater steadfastness elsewhere is all that now preserves it. But I would not stand between any man and his genius; and to him who does this work, which I decline, with his whole heart and soul and life, I would say, Persevere, even if the world call it doing evil, as it is most likely they will.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

I’m guessing that it puzzled many people that such an earnest and moralistic person was not more interested in charitable works. They may have thought, maybe he’s not righteous and idealistic after all… maybe he’s just a selfish, misanthropic bastard.

But what I want to look at now is Henry’s role as sort of a secular, cloistered monk. Of the people who entered religious life as monks or nuns, some were devoted to serving the public directly through charitable works. But the cloistered religious mostly kept to themselves and devoted their days to prayer and study. I know I’m oversimplifying things, but my point is this: it’s easy to see the usefulness of the do-gooders (assuming that you think they’re actually doing good) but it’s harder to see how cloistered people accomplish anything that benefits the rest of us. (And of course the point of it isn’t necessarily to benefit the rest of us.)

But what if there’s a benefit simply in having some intelligent people on the margins of society whose job it is to question everything and test life by living in unconventional ways? It won’t work out every time, but in Thoreau’s case I think it’s clear that he had far more impact on the world by following his muse that he would have if he had devoted his days to serving the poor.

“You must have a genius for charity as well as for anything else,” he wrote. He knew he couldn’t do everything, and he knew what he was good at and what he wasn’t good at. He made his choices and focused his energies.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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