Book review: Lessons from Walden: Thoreau and the Crisis of American Democracy

Lessons From Walden

Lessons from Walden:
Thoreau and the Crisis of American Democracy,
by Bob Pepperman Taylor
University of Notre Dame Press
258 pages
Nonfiction / Political literature criticism
American Political Science Association 2020, Section Award for Best Book in American Political Thought

Buy the book on my Bookshop

I read Walden by Henry David Thoreau a few years ago. So when I saw Bob Pepperman Taylor had a book on it, I knew it would be a great way of going deeper into the work and its meaning. Lessons from Walden focuses also on Civil Disobedience. So I read it first to be really ready for this excellent inquiry into Thoreau’s thought.

With passion and expertise, Bob Pepperman Taylor focuses on Thoreau’s thought in Walden and Civil Disobedience, and what it means for us today and demands of us. As Taylor says in his introduction, “Walden is a central American text for addressing two of the central crises of our time: the increasingly alarming threats we now face to democratic norms, practices, and political institutions, and the perhaps even more alarming environmental dangers confronting us.”

Taylor examines the work according to three angles: in chapter 1, he looks at simplicity and the ethics of “voluntary poverty;” in chapter 2, at civil disobedience and the role of “conscience” in democratic politics; and in chapter 3, he concentrates on what “nature” means to us today and whether we can truly learn from it.
The author enriches his reflection by referring to many other authors in a wide variety of fields, such as American literature, environmental ethics, and political theory.

The following is basically a collection of fabulous passages, that I reorganized to give an overview of the book.

“Henry David Thoreau occupies two critical positions in the American story, one as an advocate of ‘civil disobedience’ to unjust political authority, and the other as an advocate for nature and its appropriate role in our economic, moral, and spiritual lives.

In that sense, Bob Pepperman Taylor considers Thoreau’s book as an awakening, hoping to inspire us to wakefulness. “His [Thoreau’s] message is deeply optimistic and inspirational”.

Chapter 1: Simplicity

Thoreau “believes we need to simplify our lives and that we may, in fact, need to cultivate what he calls ‘voluntary poverty.’ The idea is to pursue  “a life of voluntary poverty—to focus on what is important, to maintain control of one’s economic life, to promote just relations with others, and to cultivate personal independence.”
This “suggests the need to cut away the trivial, to focus on the pure and the timeless.”
“Thoreau clearly ties voluntary poverty to living philosophically, or, what is the same in his view, morally.”

“He is proposing a radical simplification of our economic life for the sake of cultivating the best that civilization has to offer.”

We do have comparable thinkers in our time, and I was expecting and glad Taylor  quoted Wendell Berry. The latter “argues that we need to return to a more modest, thrifty, and conserving economy if we are to significantly combat the violence we currently unleash both against the land and toward one another.”

Indeed, “our own survival might well depend on cultivating anew a sense of limits… This is a hard teaching, requiring discipline and good judgment about our real needs… Respect both for nature and our most humane goods requires a moderation of our economic life.”

Thoreau’s “project of voluntary poverty is conceived as a humane project of living more reasonable, free, and satisfying lives. The point is to cultivate the most rewarding aspects of modern society and abandon the alienating elements.

Chapter 2: Different drummers

As we can see from the above, Thoreau “encourages us to follow our moral intuition”.
This “we can achieve by extricating ourselves from alienating economic needs. It will help us maintain clear moral vision, the courage of our convictions, and a recognition of our neighborly duties.” Thoreau’s project is definitely moral.

His “conception of moral life draws no distinction between the right and the good. For him what is ethical is also what leads to happiness and a fully human life.” “His conception of the moral life is deeply idealistic and anti-materialist.

Chapter 3: Learning from nature

Thoreau “recommends that we live close to and learn from the natural world.” For him, nature is a tutor, especially “in the moral reform of human beings.”

“When we learn to attend to nature, we learn to live in the present, to focus on what is essential rather than ephemeral, and we experience what is timeless and eternal. In this way, nature helps us learn to live as fully, responsibly, and meaningfully as possible.”

I’d like to insert here a quotation from Walden that really struck me when I read it:

As if you could kill time without injuring eternity”

Taylor also quotes many other thinkers and movements who have been reflecting on these issues. Today, Thoreau’s ideas are definitely kept alive in the thought and writings of Wendell Berry.

To conclude, we can say that “Thoreau’s primary objective in Walden is to encourage us to become morally conscientious and independent.  He doesn’t give us a fully developed political program, but he believes that reforming individuals in their private life will offer significant public benefits.”

“Thoreau was not a Luddite, but rather an advocate of voluntary poverty, the prudential use of wealth, technology, and ‘civilization’ in order to prepare ourselves to live independently, thoughtfully, creatively.” 

His work is “a warning against the materialism of contemporary society, including our overwhelming preoccupation with wealth and pleasure.”

“If Walden is a plea to take control of one’s own life primarily for one’s own sake, Civil Disobedience and other writings suggest that Thoreau believes such independence will have desirable political repercussions. “
“The problem of free individuals is the problem of responsible individuals and is relevant to both our public and our private lives.” This is a dimension that is too often forgotten in our consumerism society (“our enslavement to the market makes us the tool of our tools”) that focuses on the ego’s satisfaction –to the point of refusing a vaccine that would help prevent multiple mutations of a virus and thus limit the number of sick people who will die of it.

“The goal of Walden is to promote a kind of personal responsibility, both for the sake of individuals and for the good of the community at large.”

“Thoreau assures us that we can live simpler, more imaginative, more independent, and profoundly more satisfying lives. And to live this is not only important at the personal level, but we have a responsibility towards our society to do so, for “the public good of society.” I think this is closely reflected in modern minimalistic tenets, and this is definitely a sign of hope for our times.

I think we could say Walden was the first minimalist, and I hope this book by Taylor will encourage more readers to go back to Walden, for a better future for all.

The book is accompanied with many notes and a long biography.

VERDICT: A very thoughtful study of Henry David Thoreau’s main works, and how they are still essential  inspirations and teachings for us today, for the survival and well-being of us all, as individuals, as society, and as stewards of nature.


Or any other great study on Walden?

In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this ebook free of charge through Edelweiss Plus, for review. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.


16 thoughts on “Book review: Lessons from Walden: Thoreau and the Crisis of American Democracy

  1. I enjoyed Thoreau back in high school but confess I haven’t studied him since. I know! His emphasis on the natural world was what attracted me to him at the time, as I recall. Nice to see that his ideas have relevance to today as well.


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  6. You really loved this book! Walden is a book I first read in high school, and I made an immediate and lifelong connection to it. I will look for this book that sounds like it is an ideal book for someone who loves Walden and see if I like it, too.


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