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Themes

In <em>Walden</em>, Thoreau frequently compares American society is to what were then considered "primitive" or "savage" societies, such as that of the Native Americans. Thoreau also juxtaposes our society with ancient societies such as the Greek or Chinese. In both of these comparisons, American society often loses. Instead of becoming a more just society, Thoreau sees everywhere around him a barbaric attachment to wealth and political power. We are still savages, according to Thoreau, and worse, we haven't even maintained the best customs of so-called savage societies – lose-lose. Our author argues that the project of civilization remains incomplete as long as materialism, injustice, and intolerance prevail.

Questions About Society and Class

  1. According to Thoreau, what is not civilized about his society? What would a really civilized society look like? (We're not talking Sim, here.)
  2. Review some of the passages where Thoreau talks about "savage" or American Indian customs. Which customs does he want to preserve and why? What aspects of "savage" society is he most critical of?
  3. Now look at some of the passages where Thoreau mentions ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, or Chinese civilizations, either their philosophy or their customs (check out our "Allusions" if you have trouble finding them). What does he value in the work of these civilizations? How does the 19th-century society in which he lives compare with these ancient civilizations? Which civilization would you most want to be a part of?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Civilization is only another form of barbarism for Thoreau. It has no redeeming value.

Thoreau's allusions to ancient philosophical texts reveal their relevance to modern American society.

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