For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Thoreau's Alternative Economics: Work, Liberty, and Democratic Cultivation"

by Walker, Brian (1998)


Henry Thoreau's Walden is frequently read as the tale of a disaffected Romantic individualist escaping the rigors of community and modern society to seek refuge in a pondside idyll. I argue that this is a fundamental misreading which misses the political import of the book. Walden reveals itself to be a democratic advice-book focusing on the tensions between the political ideal of free self-direction and the unfavorable work conditions that laborers often face. Thoreau's goal is to set out a strategy by which economically vulnerable citizens may enact their liberty and autonomy in threatening employment conditions. To that end, Thoreau reformats themes and practices from various ancient philosophical traditions. Walden is one of the few texts in our tradition in which strategies are thought through for the individual laborer attempting to maintain freedom while at the same time making a living. It therefore merits our closest attention.


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