Ryan Cole writing on Emerson, Thoreau, and self-reliance …

In 1846, smack dab in the middle of his Walden experiment, Henry David Thoreau was thrown in jail. For years, he’d refused to pay a local poll tax.

His argument against paying the tax was simple; the proceeds were funding the Mexican-American War (the Iraq War of the day), and it was helping fund the spread of slavery in the south as well.

As it turns out, Thoreau was mistaken about how the tax was spent…

And, what’s more, the local sheriff was mistaken in arresting him – a fine was all that was called for.

History is often messier than it looks at first glance.

But the important thing is, after much soul-searching, Thoreau had decided that words and opinions were all fine and good…but action is what really counted.

That’s why he chose jail over paying a piddling fine.

He was actually enraged when he found out a benefactor (probably his aunt) had paid his taxes, and he was free to go after a single night in jail.

Thoreau had wanted to spend a lot more time there. He wanted to highlight the injustice of the system.

He admonished his compatriot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, when Emerson came to visit his cell.

“What are you doing in there?” Emerson asked upon finding his friend in jail.

After establishing that Emerson held the same opinion of the tax as himself, Thoreau retorted, “What are you doing out there?”

Let’s be clear – outside of a few hermits living in caves in the mountains, there’s no one that is entirely independent of others.

We live in a civilization built on shared beliefs, values, and rules.

Emerson, Thoreau


We move safely through this world protected by laws. We travel freely thanks to government-sponsored roads. You can only read these words – and reason for yourself – thanks to the work of countless educators, whether you went to public or private school.

No man is an island. But you don’t need to be an island to be self-reliant.

Self-reliance is about choosing action whenever the choice is available . This can take countless forms – from changing out a broken light fixture, to replacing a busted hard drive in your computer, to growing your own fresh herbs for cooking…

To taking a stand against immoral wars, or an immoral government.

Thoreau himself would agree. After two years at Walden Pond, he returned to the world of men – of socializing and human contact.
We are, after all, social creatures. We are healthiest when in a group.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t be self-reliant at the same time. Independence doesn’t mean loneliness. It means being capable of solving problems, being strong enough to stand against wrong – yet popular – opinions, and being ready to defend your rights against those who would take them.

You don’t want to live separate from the world. You want to be capable of taking care of yourself and your family in an emergency. You want to be able to weather storms – be they geopolitical, social, or just weather.

But the goal isn’t to remove yourself or your loved ones from the world. It’s to be happy in your own skin, and know how to protect that skin from the threats and misfortunes that surround us.

That’s what we talk about when we talk about self-reliance. Everything beyond that is pointless bluster – all talk, no real action.

And everything short of that is negligent.

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Image: ©iStock.com/Kirkikis

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