I observe that my friend does not live in the spirit of his own axiom: else, why should he trouble himself over the inhabitants of Lucraft’s Row? He is certainly not taking the world as he finds it when he devotes his hours of leisure to impart the elements of decency to gutter-snipes, and save drunkards from the pit. He is as much an individualist as I, only his individualism expresses itself in a different way; which confirms my original conjecture that we may be equally right in our own mode of life. Nor, by his own confession, does he really sacrifice his inclinations in his mode of life; he gratifies his sense of altruism in Lucraft’s Row, and I my love of Nature in the solitude of lonely hills. The objects which give men pleasure may be so diverse that what is a source of joy to one man may be an equal source of misery to another. There can be no doubt that many of the martyrs and ascetics were honestly enamoured of pain and whatever credit they deserve for sacrifice, they pleased themselves by renouncing the world, as others by enjoying it; and all that can be said on the subject is that each pleased himself in his own way.
Thoreau’s defence when he was accused of not doing good was that it did not agree with his constitution; and although the defence sounds like a piece of amusing cynicism, it was in reality a plea entirely just. The common fault of the Good Earnest People, as of most people, is that they can only conceive of doing good after a pattern which is congenial to themselves. But their mode of doing good, while it suits themselves admirably, may not suit every constitution, and people of a quite different mental constitution may be quite as good as themselves, although it is after a very different pattern. Thoreau did a vast amount of good by showing men, in his own example, that the simplest kind of life was compatible with the highest intellectual aims; would he, in the long-run, have served the world half as well had he forced himself to live amid the squalor of a New York slum? Are not we so much the wiser and stronger by the lessons taught in the hut beside Walden Pond, that it would be the poorest compensation for their loss to know that Thoreau by dint of effort made himself a fairly efficient city missionary, or pleased the pundits of a Charity Organisation Society? Or to take a yet more forcible example of my meaning: Hood