Home/Culture/Thoreau vs. St. Benedict: How We “Opt Out” Matters

Thoreau vs. St. Benedict: How We “Opt Out” Matters

“Homesteading” has come back into vogue—but it’s not the old, federal-grant-fueled farming you may have read about in Little House on the Prairie. It’s a return to the land, focused on self-sufficiency and simple living. Eva Holland wrote Thursday about the trend for Pacific Standard:

Most recently, homesteading has been tweaked and put to use again, this time in connection with the latest do-it-yourself trends and the idea of increased self-sufficiency: of severing—or at least loosening—our ties to the big chain supermarket, the power grid, the consumer economy … It encompasses everything from backyard chickens and rooftop gardens in Brooklyn to the composting toilet in the tiny house your friend’s friend built. Abigail R. Gehring, the author of several recent how-to books on contemporary homesteading and self-sufficient living, writes: “Homesteading is about creating a lifestyle that is first of all genuine. It’s about learning to recognize your needs—including energy, food, financial, and health needs—and finding out how they can be met creatively and responsibly.”

The article reminded me of Henry David Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond, chronicled in his book Walden. “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.

Of course, Thoreau was a bit more extreme than most homesteaders—he was attempting to revert back to more of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle than an agrarian one. Indeed, he was surrounded by farmers, and criticized the lifestyle:

The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.

One wonders what he would’ve thought of our modern working world: the millions of people huddled over computers in dimly-lit cubicles, working over 40 hours a week, commuting home in droves, stuck for ages in rush hour traffic. The better part of man is no longer “plowed into the soil for compost,” but may perhaps waste away on the urban highway.

Thoreau and the homesteader are united in their desire for a simpler life, a back-to-nature and independence-driven mode of existence. As Holland puts it, today’s homesteaders “knit, and they forage for wild mushrooms, and, if they live in the right part of the country, maybe they smoke their own wild-caught salmon in a rudimentary smoker they built themselves.” Similarly, Thoreau built a rough shack, planted his garden, and cooked the food he needed for daily meals. (Though he was a bit hypocritical: Paul Theroux notes that “During his famous experiment in his cabin at Walden, moralizing about his solitude, [Thoreau] did not mention that he brought his mother his dirty laundry and went on enjoying her apple pies.”)

Thoreau’s mode of life, while not entirely solitary, suggests a state of nature centered on the individual, rather than on community. It also promotes the “noble savage” of romantic primitivism: the idea that, in his most simplistic state, mankind was most innocent, and the best caretaker of the earth. When we view the pollution, decay, and damage the humankind has wrought on the earth, it’s easy to adopt such a view. But there are a few important ingredients missing from Thoreau’s philosophy of living, and potentially from the philosophy of the homesteaders—and this is where St. Benedict comes in.

St. Benedict was a monk who lived around the year AD 500, known for starting monastic communities after the fall of Rome. Rod Dreher recently wrote a feature story for TAC on the monk and his model of living:

Rome’s collapse meant staggering loss. People forgot how to read, how to farm, how to govern themselves, how to build houses, how to trade, and even what it had once meant to be a human being. Behind monastery walls, though, in their chapels, scriptoriums, and refectories, Benedict’s monks built lives of peace, order, and learning and spread their network throughout Western Europe.
They did not keep the fruits of their labors to themselves. Benedictines taught the peasants who gathered around their monasteries the Christian faith, as well as practical skills, like farming. Because monks of the order took a vow of “stability,” meaning they were sworn to stay in that place until they died, Benedictine monasteries emerged as islands of sanity and serenity. These were the bases from which European civilization gradually re-emerged.

There are significant differences between this sort of “opt-out” community, and the homesteaders in Holland’s articles. One mode of life is focused on self-sufficiency; the other is focused on benefiting community. One is focused on material goods (or a lack thereof); the other is focused more on spiritual and cultural cultivation than on smoking salmon or keeping chickens.

While both Thoreau and Benedict chose to “opt out” of society’s customary mode of living, their methods of abstention were radically different. The individualism and self-focus of Thoreau’s romantic primitivism is sadly injurious to social living. Man is truly made for community—as Aristotle wrote, “man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it.”

Benedict’s communities were also separated from the urban centers of his time. But rather than attempting to withdraw entirely from civilization, he wanted to provide a place for those needing care, shelter, and instruction.

A view of homesteading focused on complete separation from society, as Thoreau did, is a faulty picture of human flourishing. A lot of homesteaders aren’t marching off into the woods by themselves: they’re working on self-sustainable living within their present communities and homes. But it is an important distinction to make—“self-sustainable living” at its most extreme would involve separation from our integrated, dependent society. We must question the extent to which self-sufficiency is truly an intrinsic good by itself. It seems that self-sufficiency would be best when it enables us to promote the flourishing of other human beings, as Benedict’s communities did. Frugality, simplicity, and contentment should help us extend greater generosity and hospitality to our communities.

These are important questions in modern society: the appeal of “opting out” has grown, both amongst those who think our modern mode of existence harms the earth, and those who think our religious and cultural development is deleterious to the human spirit. People are seeking to renew their methods and modes of living—not merely to rely on McDonald’s for meals and Wal-Mart for home goods, but to pursue healthier and more holistic modes of existence.

In the midst of the trend, it’s important to consider the goal: whether opting out will result in beneficial goods to our surrounding locale, or whether it will result in enclaves of individualism, shacks along Walden Pond, each a bastion of noble selfishness.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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