Do good or be good? Thoreau’s individualism (Walden 41)

“What good I do, in the common sense of that word, must be aside from my main path, and for the most part wholly unintended. Men say, practically, Begin where you are and such as you are, without aiming mainly to become of more worth, and with kindness aforethought go about doing good. If I were to preach at all in this strain, I should say rather, Set about being good.”

— Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

This continues Henry’s thoughts from last time about what you might call his selfishness and his lack of charitable works. Today’s quote is equally provocative.

Is it better to start doing good things and not worry about whether or not you’re becoming a better person, or is Henry correct that this is backwards? He thinks you start with yourself, figure out who you are, work on becoming a better person and find what you’re passionate about doing. Then, whatever actual good flows from that will do so inadvertently, without you even trying to accomplish anything on behalf of others. But if you get it backwards and simply try to do good without knowing yourself, you risk becoming one of the misguided do-gooders that so irritated Thoreau.

That’s how I interpret him, anyway.

I wonder if it made a difference that he was a bachelor. He didn’t have people who were directly dependent on him, which would mean getting certain things done and not worrying about self-improvement or the higher values that Henry was always talking about.

There are times I want to say to him, Maybe it’s time to get your mind off yourself for a while and think about what others need, or at least consider that this is the reality of the lives of most of your readers — people who live in a world of deeds and not abstractions.

To be fair, Thoreau spent most of his life living and working with others, in the family home and pencil-making business, or with the Emersons. He nursed his brother John during John’s fatal illness. Nevertheless, as a bachelor he had far fewer obligations than he’d have had as a husband and father (or even as a single woman). And I think this provided some space for his idealism.

That said, he may still have a valid point. How much harm is done by people who are “only trying to help”? How much good is done by people who are simply listening to their own muse and living accordingly?

And behind these questions lurks a larger question that Henry doesn’t address directly: In an interdependent world, how much do we owe each other? To what degree are we morally obligated to give up our dreams and preferences for some perceived greater good? Or to what degree does each of us have a moral right to be selfish and ignore others’ expectations while we lead the one life that belongs to us?

I hear Henry coming down on the side of individualism here. But it is a particular kind of individualism.

What do you think? Is he correct about the best way to achieve goodness?

More about these ideas in the next few posts.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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