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Four years before Thoreau embarked on his Walden project, his great teacher and role model Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an enormously influential essay entitled “Self-Reliance.” It can be seen as a statement of the philosophical ideals that Thoreau’s experiment is meant to put into practice. Certainly self-reliance is economic and social in Walden: it is the principle that in matters of financial and interpersonal relations, independence is more valuable than neediness.
Thus Thoreau dwells on the contentment of his solitude, on his finding entertainment in the laugh of the loon and the march of the ants rather than in balls, marketplaces, or salons. He does not disdain human companionship; in fact he values it highly when it comes on his own terms, as when his philosopher or poet friends come to call.
Thoreau simply refuses to need human society. Similarly, in economic affairs he is almost obsessed with the idea that he can support himself through his own labor, producing more than he consumes, and working to produce a profit. Thoreau does not simply report on the results of his accounting, but gives us a detailed list of expenditures and income. How much money he spent on salt from 1845 to 1847 may seem trivial, but for him it is not. Rather it is proof that, when everything is added up, he is a giver rather than a taker in the economic game of life.
As Emerson’s essay details, self-reliance can be spiritual as well as economic, and Thoreau follows Emerson in exploring the higher dimensions of individualism. In Transcendentalist thought the self is the absolute center of reality; everything external is an emanation of the self that takes its reality from our inner selves.
Self-reliance thus refers not just to paying one’s own bills, but also more philosophically to the way the natural world and humankind rely on the self to exist. This duality explains the connection between Thoreau the accountant and Thoreau the poet, and shows why the man who is so interested in pinching pennies is the same man who exults lyrically over a partridge or a winter sky. They are both products of self-reliance, since the economizing that allows Thoreau to live on Walden Pond also allows him to feel one with nature, to feel as though it is part of his own soul.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Walden!