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Chapter Eight: The Village
Sometimes after finishing his daily chores and meditations, Thoreau goes to visit the village of Concord, nearby. From time to time, he finds it refreshing to be amongst people and hear a little bit of news. He is bothered, however, that all the village citizens seem consumed by a desire for gossip. He avoids taking part in the gossip, calling it prairie dog chatter.
Thoreau reflects that when men travel by night in the woods, they often have difficulties finding their ways. They are not sure where they want to go and whether they are following the right path. Thoreau says he believes this is because humans in general lack faith in themselves. For his part, Thoreau purposefully sets out for home after dark. Rarely does he get lost or feel fear and anxiety; in fact, he usually enjoys the sensation of being lost in the woods and exploring his way joyfully toward his home.
One afternoon in 1845, during a trip to town, Thoreau is arrested and put in jail overnight for failing to pay his taxes. His refusal to pay taxes was a protest against the institution of slavery, which he sees as a violation against all mankind. The memory of this incident launches Thoreau into one of his discussions against institutionalization. He looks at the functioning of the state as a necessary thing to promote individual welfare; but he insists that the state must exist solely for the benefit of its citizens. Unfortunately, people who work for and belong to organized governments have violated his individual rights; Thoreau feels they are the only people who have molested him in life. He points out that he never locks his cabin, and no one has ever taken anything from him, except a book. He believes that if all men lived as simply as he did at Walden Pond, robbery would disappear.
This chapter is extremely important in relation to other pieces of literature written by Thoreau. The incident of his arrest and some of the thoughts he expresses in reaction to such a negative experience lead up to his famous pamphlet entitled Civil Disobedience. His attitude toward the state is clearly expressed in an often-quoted line from this chapter: "Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him."
In all the time he lived at Walden Pond, Thoreau never had any problems with theft or nuisances. In fact, the only incident he can recall was the theft of a small volume of Homer. He believes that because he lived so simply, there was no temptation for others to steal from him. He also attributes the fact to the basic goodness of the common man as opposed to the negative aspects of government. His overall opinion is that if those who rule are good and virtuous, those who are ruled will be good and virtuous also. Unfortunately, Thoreau does not believe that those in government are always good. In fact, he feels that they sometimes tread on his individual rights. They also allow the abominable state of slavery and bless cruelty in the form of imprisonment and other punishment. By the end of the chapter, Thoreau states his opposition to any kind of force by the government against its people and advocates virtue as a means of reform.