Walden (6/10): I don't remember who first said we needed an Archimedean point to philosophize, but I think he was totally wrong. When we find solitude and use that experience to philosophize we come up with philosophies that can't possibly work in the world. Yes, all writers need some kind of solitude to write. But the thinking part shouldn't be done in complete isolation. This is Thoreau's problem. Though I recognize many of his sentiments and like many of them (and liked them even more a few years ago when I was still a libertarian...I guess that was more than a few years ago now), most of them are totally unrealistic. Solitude forces us to induce because we don't have a wide enough experience to deduce. So Thoreau claims that because this life suits him, and because it suits this (presumably French) Canadian woodcutter, it's therefore possible and preferable for humanity. This obsession with deduction makes him seem ignorant, which he clearly wasn't. Maybe there was room in the US for this kind of life back then, but there wasn't in Europe, in China, in India. I'm convince that solitude, though it may help “refine” thoughts, leads to untempered idealism, which is of course a bad thing if one is hoping for people to actually follow one's philosophy (of course no matter how idealistic the philosophy it will always have adherents – how could it not with over 7 billion people on the planet – but few if any of those adherents will actually live their beliefs). What I am trying to say is that this book is full of nice, unrealizable sentiments. Too bad.
Civil Disobedience (8/10): This was one of the major texts that made me an anarchist and then a libertarian. Ten years later, I have to say I completely disagree with Thoreau's philosophical basis for his argument but not as much with his argument. I believe there is a time and place for civil disobedience. There will always be government but citizens need to work towards making that government better (rather than smaller or nonexistent). I sympathize with his argument (despite not believing in absolute right) but I do not know how to institutionalize it (which means leaving it up to the braver or dumber amongst us). Just because there are few if any absolute rights or wrongs, doesn't mean laws can't be bad. But how to we legislate this? How do we make it possible for the average citizen to object to the “immoral” conduct of their government? Say, for example, we allow citizens to withhold their taxes when the government engages in violations of international law. That sounds great (to me anyway), but how does that work exactly? Does the burden of proof rest with the citizen? How about the cost of the trial and potential imprisonment for unpaid taxes? If the person wasn't paying taxes to begin with, is it likely they could pay for the additional costs? This strikes me as unsovable and so we must be content with civil disobedience being essentially illegal or quasi-legal, even though it shouldn't be.