COVID-19 experts prescribe that we should socially distance ourselves from our neighbors. In his time, Henry David Thoreau (writer, philosopher, and poet), encouraged another form of social distancing. Thoreau advocated distancing not to avoid contagious disease, but as a means to evaluate who and what the human person truly is. He observed that the modern world had left the average man and woman, “no time to be anything but a machine.” For Thoreau saw that the modern world has abolished the ontological mystery of what constitutes a human being.
In this time of mandated lockdowns and social distancing, I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with this great American writer. Thoreau is difficult to categorize on a political scale. The left has been unsuccessful in reducing his message. His master work, Walden—a world classic—was an experiment in social distancing, yet its goal was not to divide mankind, but to unite us in our common destiny throughout time. Thoreau was appalled that his neighbors were more concerned with being rich than with being free, and distressed that modern inventions which increased leisure and diffused luxury also decreased the inner cultivation of the human person.
More than a century and a half ago, in the spring of 1845, Thoreau built a small $28 house on the outskirts of the town of Concord, Massachusetts. He declared the “restless, nervous, bustling, trivial nineteenth-century” a triviality because it encouraged men and women to conform to a closed system. One that did not recognize them as creatures with human souls on a journey between time and the eternity. Thoreau warned of modernity diminishing men and women exclusively to the sphere of economics, whose only longings are the satisfaction of material needs. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately; to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” He wrote in Walden that his age had “camped down on Earth and forgotten heaven.” Thoreau always lifted his gaze to eternity.