Illusions of Humanity

This is a comparative essay written for my course on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Free to be Human by David Edwards.

Humans make reality; or, rather, we build our society and psychology based on notions of what reality is or should be. These notions are generally understood to come from individuals; the citizens of a “free” country are the masters of their own destinies. They are capable of making decisions that shape everyday life and the future. Thoreau and Edwards contend the issue is more complex. In Walden, Thoreau proposes these decisions cannot be made freely unless the individual chooses a life and manner of thinking that allows for freedom; a century and a half later in Free to be Human, Edwards questions whether the structure of society and economics allows for intellectual freedom at all.

Both authors contend that ignorance counters freedom; one cannot be free if unaware of the environment (either natural or built) in which one exists. Thoreau went to Walden Pond to, “ deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach….” His was an experiment of awareness and awakening to the “natural world”; though perhaps it would be better to say he was trying to awaken what was natural in him. Throughout the book are references to a sleeping society unable (or unwilling) to awaken. The balance of his philosophy, outlined in the first third of Walden, deals with the contemporary desire for material gain. Thoreau designed simplicity into his life to avoid what he saw as unnecessary complexities. His personal economy was parsed out to only necessities; as “superfluous wealth”, to him, could only purchase “superfluities”.

Though the base of Thoreau’s argument is, of course, intellectual, the practicalities of such life changes in the 19th century were comparatively straightforward (the barriers between life in town and the “simple life” were breached by a forthright decision and a few miles walk). Thoreau could live simply in his cabin, his exploration of personal and intellectual freedom was little threatened by New England society—though New England society lay within easy reach. The physical distance between was a great part of the intellectual distance as well. Today, though the geography has not changed, such an experiment would be a greater challenge.

Edwards discusses the innate social conditioning of society. Though Thoreau was educated at Harvard and was a product of New England culture, his was a time relatively untouched by encompassing control of education or corporate advertising. At the risk of romanticism or simplification; most people educated in Thoreau’s time were equipped to be “free thinkers”. There were, as Thoreau contests, many hindrances to this freedom; but the tools, should an individual choose to use them, were available. Edwards outlines how these tools have been gradually removed from our educational system; replacing them are entirely different means of thinking. This new system of thought encourages people to become “cogs in the wheel” of a mechanistic society. No longer is the simple life nearby in the village wood; it is beyond easy geographic reach and only accessible with a complete abandonment of a life considered “normal”.

Edwards asserts that, beyond poorly equipping students for free thought, our educational systems are actively encouraging ignorance. His basis for this argument is that our society has become wholly un-natural and incapable of supporting freedom and health (both physical and intellectual). To counter what would otherwise be an obvious fact to free thinking people, the systems of education, governance, and socialisation must discourage thought and observation. This is not, according to Edwards, necessarily a grand conspiracy of command and control (though there are certainly concentrated areas where this may be true). It is, instead, the way things must fall in to place for such a society to function at all.

Society operates on a set of necessary beliefs; Edwards provides a list of these beliefs for our world which have both acceptable behaviours and proscriptions. Of course, the biggest taboo in our society is to reveal the absurdity of it all. One of the limits society places on the cogs is that they not delve deeply into the workings of the machine. This necessary ignorance, over time, develops into outright stupidity concerning the reality of life and nature. The evidence of this, in a democratic system, is most apparent when we choose leaders who amplify our own ignorance; either they themselves are overtly ignorant or they do no call upon the governed to think individually. Worst yet is when we choose ignorant leaders who also discourage thought. The end result is a massive machine running at full with no governor; it will produce in excess till entropy grinds it to a halt or it flies apart.

Both authors encourage the reader to break out of convention and shape a life that fosters intellectual freedom. For Thoreau, this meant finding oneself from within; though he made a physical move to the woods, the most difficult encumbrance, he realised, is the mental barrier to freedom. Edwards proposes that men and women are lost not only intellectually, but, to an equal extent, physically. We are so distanced from nature and the realities of our world, that the impediments to freedom are higher and more imposing than any time in human history.1 Unfortunately, the barriers to truth and clarity are reenforced as we become more distant from reality; the necessary lies under which we live must become continually grander to maintain any semblance of sanity.

This genre of books are, unfortunately, often seen as essays on solipsism; they are, rather, guides to finding one’s place in society—finding connexions. The argument of both books is that we are easily bound by illusion; our chains are rarely iron, but the rust that shackles our minds.

1 Note that Edwards is not necessairly talking about a “return to nature” in which he advocates we should live like Thoreau; he is rather discussing our ignorance concerning the consequences of an industrial economy and the effect it has on the world.

Afterthought: I realise I’m using many “words” in my writing. I’m not sure if this means the “concepts” discussed lack “real” terms or that my writing is just “weak”. Also, I’m getting rather “confused” by this whole British—American English divide (punctuation around quotations and so on). My “writing” from the course is probably an inadvertent hash of both; hopefully my tutors will have “mercy”.