Ironically, it was Thoreau who was attempting to make the abstract idealism of R. W. Emerson more practical. I agree with the editors of above that, like Emerson, Thoreau was certainly an idealist, but rather than just "dreaming" Thoreau went into the woods and made those ideas his own reality. The strive to improve our lives and the lives of those around us is noble in and of itself; Thoreau took those ideas a step farther by making them hallmarks of action.
Thoreau was both impractical and a dreamer. Nevertheless, we need ideals to have something for which to strive as a society and a civilization. Although those who read Thoreau and desire to emulate him may never reach the peak of perfection as he describes it, the process of striving is no less valuable. Thoreau's ideals, for me, bring to mind Plato and Aristotle's discussions of ideals. Never attainable in total, but also worthy of striving for.
While pohnpei397 is correct that it is impractical for every citizen to make decisions based purely on his or her own conscience, there are in fact times when an individual acting on conscience against the government can change an unjust law by drawing public attention to it. Hunger strikes are an example, as well as the classic examples of Gandhi's and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s passive resistance to tyrannical governments.
Well, somehow you've just got to admire a guy with a Harvard education who went to work in a pencil factory to save money to build a $28 cabin and live in the woods. (I hope all that is factual; I seem to remember reading it a long time ago.) In any event, I admire Thoreau for having the courage to live an authentic life. As for his being an impractical dreamer, I don't think so. An idealist, certainly, but a passage from Walden comes to mind:
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them . . . .
Nothing impractical in that piece of advice.
Another passage I think of often:
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.
This does not suggest an impractical dream, either. It seems instead to acknowledge Thoreau's understanding of the value of one's life and how quickly it passes. As he said, ". . . living is so dear."
I must confess I'm not a huge Thoreau fan, so I'm on the fence a bit on your question. He does strike me as being idealistic in some ways. Because of him we're free to follow the beat of a different drummer and we're know we're not alone in living lives of "quiet desperation." He is imminently quotable and often ethereal (by which I mean idealistic). He was right about slowing down and not letting our "stuff" control our lives--both of which are easier said than done.
On the other hand, I find him less believable--and therefore more practical--because he did not always live by his own principles, it seems to me. His isolated pond was on Emerson's land and only a short distance from the Emerson estate. Thoreau walked to town nearly every day and was therefore quite aware of and even connected to the events of the day. His journal feels sort of contrived and overwritten, too "artful," probably because he took so long to revisit and revise it before publishing. This makes him kind of a practical idealist in my book.
Thoreau lived in a world that was inhabited by people who revered thinkers, people who respected the rights of man, people who had a sense of the spiritual. He cannot be measured in this day of "situational ethics" and tremendous avarice and vice in which people with scruples are scoffed at as "idealists."
I agree that the distinction needs to be made between being an "idealistic thinker" and "an impractical dreamer". Thoreau saw his world in a very different way than many of us see ours. His appreciation for man, the world, nature--all are very specific to his way of thinking, but how much better would the aesthetics of everyday life be if we applied a little of his thinking to the world today.
I think we need to distinguish between "impractical dreamer" and "idealist" - they are two very different terms, and whilst we might say that at times Thoreau does wander into impractical dreaming, his writings are clearly idealistic in that they assume the best of man and the world. I think there is a danger of dismissing all of his ideas with this unhelpful term - really there is so much that we could all learn today through reading and applying his ideas.
Absolutely not! Thoreau is one of the greatest thinkers of our time who made the effort to document his thoughts and challenge others in their own thought.
Of course, he did fly into the scene on Emerson's coattails, but I think Thoreau made more of a splash. He intended to help craft an American literary movement that established us with an identity. All around us, countries had gone through great movements in art, literature and science. His effort was to help create some more ingenuity.
In addition, Thoreau had a grasp on an already American ideal that could indeed hurt the American: extreme hard work. His decision to go out to Walden and live meanly, to live off the land and separate one's self from society was a great social experiment. It forced him to spend time thinking, not doing. Now Thoreau is generally required reading in about 11th grade which is very important. We have a culture that just does. We listen to our music, we hang out with our friends, and we gratify the self. If we don't keep thinking (which I think is one of Thoreau's greatest encouragements) we could lose our purpose.
Thoreau and Emerson's ideas of transcendentalism certainly came from the idea that it is important to dream and not conform and be one with nature, but these are ideas that everyone should have to a degree in them.
Although some may see him as a dreamer, his book Walden was the first book I ever read cover to cover that actually made me think. I hope this has the same effect on other readers for years to come.
If I base my answer on what Thoreau says in "Civil Disobedience," then I would say that he is an impractical dreamer. In that essay, Thoreau says that the best civilization would be one that had essentially no government. In addition, he says that people should do whatever their consciences tell them and disobey any laws that they think are unjust. Both of these are impractical in my opinion.
Practically speaking, all societies need governments. If people were simply free to follow their own consciences without any checks on their behavior, all would be chaos. If governments could not compel people to follow the rules set down by the majority, there would not be any practical sort of civilization. For example, how could we have a society if government did not prevent people from stealing (if those people thought it was okay to do so)?
Yes because in the simpler times that people lived, it was so much easier to go against the grains of society and not have any repercussions. The further we progress, the harder and harder it becomes to formulate and maintain good values and ideas.