In high school, I read Thoreau, Emerson, and a host of other essayists and philosophers. I still have a young reader’s copy of Walden on my bookshelf. It sits next to Critias by Plato and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. They impacted me more than most of the Authors I read. Each was as much a seeker of truth as Socrates but much closer in time and space than any ancient philosopher.
Self –Reliance challenged me to awaken from the conformity of everyday life and live a life of purpose. A high goal for a fifteen-year-old kid. Thoreau went further in some ways. Walden and Civil Disobedience taught me it was not only legitimate to rail against injustice. It was my civic duty to oppose the Man and his Machine.
In the years since I first read their work, I’ve thought about how these two, who were friends in addition to contemporaries, changed my outlook on life. As an adult, the tedium of the sleeper crept back over me, but their writing has been my alarm bell a few times. I may not be fully awake, but I’m not snoring, either.
Before writing this post, I read Self-Reliance and Civil Disobedience again. The words of both men echo in my mind as thunderous sermons delivered from long ago. Yet, I also have a new appreciation for them that I lacked in my youth. Part of that is having lived a life rather than expecting to live one. But the other, more subtle truth is that I know now from living what they meant. I am faithful to myself and obedient to civil authority, only as far as my conscience allows.