Covid-19 & Thoreau’s Transcendentalism: In praise of isolation or not?

Is Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ (1854) relevant in the covid-19 world? Was he praising social isolation as a way of life?

The impact of Covid-19 has forced attention upon past thinkers who may have something to teach us about response to a dramatically changed world. For much of April it became impossible to buy copies of Albert Camus’s ‘The Plague’. The novel was written as a metaphor for the German occupation of northern Africa, however the lucidity of description of reaction to sudden attack on societal structure, whether by an invading army or a lethal virus led many to read or re-read it. How far it should be regarded solely as an attempted observation of society and individuals or as serving a wider philosophical agenda on appropriate response to ‘plague’ of whatever sort remains disputed. 

Alongside existentialism another political philosophy that has also seen a major revival of interest is transcendentalism, a movement that emerged in the US in the 1820s. The core tenet was that inherently good individual human nature was corrupted by collective and institutionalised human behaviour. Henry David Thoreau was a leading transcendentalist thinker, his most widely known work, the provocatively titled ‘Walden and on the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ (‘Walden’, 1854), has been held up as ostensibly rejecting the need for society and praising the virtues of isolation. It had been long been interpreted as advocating isolation as superior to the corrupting influence of society and as such has been grasped as a positive support by many who have suddenly found themselves lonely or isolated as a result of Covid-19.  

I contend that this misinterprets Thoreau’s case based upon a selective reading of ‘Walden’, and ignores its wider context. I suggest that Thoreau was attracted to isolation as an alternative way of life, but did not advocate it as superior to social alternatives, nor suggest it as a universally suitable lifestyle and that there is little material in the book in support of the title. Moreover, Thoreau wrote Walden in drastically different circumstances from those many are experiencing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Any contemporaneous lessons we seek to draw from a reading of Walden, must bear this in mind.

A Balanced Reading of ‘Walden’

Thoreau chose to live in a forest by a Walden Lake in relative isolation for just over two years, surviving by foraging and living a more solitary existence. He investigated the notion of being ‘alone’ rather than ‘lonely’ and suggested that a happier and more contented life could be achieved through focus upon internal awareness rather than society. Observations such as 

‘I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. […] I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude’

appear to offer the prospect of a healing salve for modern readers such as those shielding or in self-isolation. 

A full reading of ‘Walden’, however, reveals the bulk of the book to be about the practical detail of achievement of Thoreau’s dream of isolation. The book is largely descriptive, covering topics such as cooking, and the necessities of survival in an isolated rural location. The style is closer to a travelogue than a philosophical work, the original edition complete with an illustration of his hut. The book is a Victorian version of armchair travel escapism similar to, for example, Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’. It offers entertainment rather than philosophical injunction.

Observations on happiness in isolation may, of course, be encouraging for others in the same predicament but perhaps as escapism rather than as sermonising advocacy. For example, in a lengthy section entitled ‘Economy’, records of costs for groceries are included as well as his overall living expenses. By themselves they are little more than marginally interesting historic documents and bear little relation to the economics of modern living. A generic philosophical point that may comfort many who have been hit economically by Covid-19 is that Thoreau’s self-consciously minimalist living did not detract from his happiness. It is questionable whether a philosophy that worked 170 years ago is an appropriate recommendation in the restricted urban environment many find themselves in today, not least because consumerism through the media has pervaded modern life in a way unimaginable in his time.

If read as prescription rather than description ‘Walden’ is contradictory at its heart. In the section entitled ‘Visitors’ Walden proudly proclaims that he had just three chairs: ‘one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society’. There is, however, also a fulsome depiction of how his small house could hold ‘a surprising number’, and that there were occasions with as many as twenty-five or thirty visitors at once, all talking loudly. Thoreau also recommends the benefits of visitors being further apart, offering a more comfortable environment for communication yet he also disdains the need for larger properties. There are also references to meetings with others nearby. Thoreau specifically denies being a hermit. He appears merely to be suggesting that a high level of frequent social interaction is not a sine qua non to happiness and that a simpler life has benefits rather than preaching the need for isolation.

The Value of ‘Walden’s’ Transcendentalism in the Covid-19 World

‘Walden’ had come to be seen as an icon of transcendentalism long before the advent of Covid-19, favouring an individualistically centred rather than community-based lifestyle. Walden Lake, declared a national historic landmark in 1962, had become a place of pilgrimage in a state protected national reservation for those seeking out nature. Thoreau offered a sympathetic account of the lifestyle he chose to adopt temporarily and pointed out the many advantages he discovered, but interpretation of the book as a strong recommendation of solitude by subsequent readers is a later narrative not supported by the book itself. Thoreau himself returned to a more conventional lifestyle after two years, the simple and more isolated life described in the book proved a temporary interlude in a more conventional existence.

The relevance or practicality of Thoreau’s rural idyl to many twenty-first century isolated householders more likely to reside in an inner-city flat with limited outdoor space and opportunity to exercise is questionable. A Buddhist might recommend greater appreciation of positive detail in one’s surroundings alongside greater self-awareness as valuable tools in contribution to greater contentment, regardless of immediate environment. However, such philosophical observations in ‘Walden’ are incidental to lengthy factual depictions of happiness achieved through greater self-sufficiency and reduced social contact. 

The dialectic between isolated self-sufficiency and reliance upon socialised intercourse has arguably become further confused by the advent of technology un-imagined in Thoreau’s time. Transcendentalists will find themselves challenged hard over the benefits that virtual communication has brought and face a great deal of commentary that the collective enterprise of the internet has played an essential role in overcoming enforced rather than chosen isolation. There is another strand of debate to be investigated which proposes that virtual communication emphasises the dystopia of those forced to rely entirely upon it as a substitute for interpersonal communication. A contemporaneous Thoreau might argue that time spent on virtual communication arguably detracts from the exercise of contemplating ones’ surrounds and self-awareness that ‘Walden’ lauds. 

Referencing ‘Walden’ as a textbook praising the loneliness and isolation suddenly experienced by many during Covid-19 as a lifestyle would be overly simplistic. A superficial reading of Walden might lead one to believe that it seeks to valorise social isolation without full consideration of Thoreau’s other objectives in writing the book. It is not a philosophical work praising or suggesting isolation. It is a description of the author’s enjoyable experience in particular surroundings far removed from those experienced whilst choosing temporary, albeit quite prolonged solitude. Whether the reader will be comforted by the description of beautiful and unspoiled countryside or find the book increasing his own dissatisfaction with his contrasting surroundings in which he is forced to isolate is an open question. Moreover, there is a new horizon to be explored for those interested of the interplay between transcendentalism and twenty-first century ‘virtual’ society.

Mark Fox

Mark is completing his MA in Religion at King's College London. He is interested in how interfaith work and religion can be used to help face the challenges of life.