Thoreau and Interdependency

In Evan Carton’s “The Price of Privilege”, he discusses how middle class American’s must feel the guilt of being apart of “a social engine that seems theirs to ride but not to steer” – an engine that can be tied to the perpetration of immoral acts, but an engine that they are inextricably tied to.  The portion of this critical essay that I found most interesting was the ‘shoulder-sitter’ metaphor that Carton highlights from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”.

Thoreau says a man need not make it his mission to eradicate wrongdoings in society “but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”  This means that you don’t have to take it upon yourself to save the world from evil, but at least you must withdraw your support of said evil.  Thoreau extends this to the metaphor of sitting on another man’s shoulders:  “If I devote myself to other pursuits… I must first see… that I do not pursue them sitting on another man’s shoulders.”  If we were to focus in on this point then could it not be said that Thoreau too, sits on the shoulders of others while pursuing his own interests.  When Thoreau is sentenced to prison for not paying his tax, it is a friend that bails him out.  When Thoreau takes two years off to live in a cabin at Walden, is he not neglecting any obligations he has to society?  Did he crush the dreams of his family by leaving the pencil factory, or by not going with his brother to California – but instead pursuing a life of solitude?  If you look at anyone’s situation in too critical a light, you will find that they are sitting on the shoulders of somebody.

Thoreau calls out each and every one of us for our inability to see how interdependent our society is – even if he may seem a hypocrite for doing so.  Carton says that what Thoreau achieves is to make us pay a kind of “soul tax” for this unjust interdependency within society.  But what can we do?

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