In 1845, Henry David Thoreau (American transcendentalist, 19th century A.D.) cobbled together a cabin in woods near Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau rhapsodized nature and solitude. He ruminated, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and “have become the tools of their tools” (Walden). Thoreau sought escape. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”(Walden). Thoreau asserted taxes fund war and slavery; a local constable famously jailed Thoreau for refusing to pay poll tax (On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, 1849). America heralded Thoreau an archetypal bootstrapping loner. Henry David (mostly after his death) grew famous.
Thoreau downplays critical facts of his Walden years. Friends visited and provisioned the cabin. When unrelenting solitude chilled Thoreau’s heart, dinner at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house thawed him. Friends paid Thoreau’s poll tax, bailing him after only one night’s incarceration. Thoreau sent out his laundry and mending. Henry David tired of isolation in Walden’s woods after twenty-six months; he returned to Concord, working at odd jobs. Thoreau was never so independent as acclaim (or he himself) painted him.
Shoreline little resembles Thoreau’s Walden. His century was nineteenth; ours twenty-first. His earth housed one billion persons; ours seven. We queue at freeways and latte stands. Cards identify us as often as names. Misbehavior of Saudi princes boosts or dings our paychecks. We long outlive Thoreau’s New Englanders. And our taxes beggar Thoreau’s annual pittance. Daily, half our fruits transfer from individual to communal weal. So, Ronald Bog is not Walden Pond. America’s romance with self-sufficiency succumbed to webbed interconnectivity. Some call us poorer for the change. I demur.
Seneca (Roman, 1st century A.D.) answers individualists: “There is no such thing as good or bad fortune for the individual; we live in common. And no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself” (Epistle XLVIII).
Seneca understood better than Thoreau. Taking care of oneself entails serving neighbors, not avoiding them. Excellent individuality spices our communal stew, but alone provides little nourishment. To be truly selfish, build neighbors. Elevate the poor. Embrace retarded and insane persons. Educate the ignorant. Find people jobs. Heal the sick. Tolerate dissenters. Stifle the reckless. Punish wickedness. Praise noble acts. Address injustice. Hope for the best, especially when desirable outcomes are in doubt. To seize goodness, give goodness. It is a rule. The ship founders; all drown. The ship harbors; all prosper. Be truly selfish.