A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.Henry David Thoreau
My introduction to Thoreau occurred in AP English in high school, where we read and sampled some great works by American writers. For one assignment, we were tasked with highlighting and annotating an excerpt of Walden, one in which Thoreau discusses living simply and deliberately. As I read it, I was hooked immediately. Everything he wrote was eye-opening yet glaringly obvious at the same time. I decided then to return to Walden in the near future and read more of what this man had to say.
Five years later, I finally made it back to the forest outside 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts to revisit Thoreau, his cabin, and his philosophy. The book best known as Walden is also known as Walden; or, Life in the Woods. My parents knew it as On Walden Pond (I don’t know why). Whatever you want to call it, Walden is indeed the name of the pond that Thoreau lived near for two years, two months, and two days.
While I always thought Thoreau became a sort of “man in the wilderness,” he was anything but. Walden Pond is just a short walk from the center of Concord. Thoreau entertained visitors fairly frequently during his residence there. Interestingly (and humorously), Ken Ilgunas relates in his book Walden on Wheels that Thoreau had his mother do his laundry for him while he lived in his little cabin.
Even though it appears Thoreau may not have been a John the Baptist eating locusts and honey or a character out of a Jack London story, he did seek to simplify his life, strive for self-sufficiency, and reconnect with nature. In Walden, he goes into great detail explaining how he made himself self-reliant, including how much he spent to build his cabin and how much he made by selling what he grew in his garden in order to support his way of life. He lived a minimalist lifestyle that makes most other minimalist ways pale in comparison, with very rudimentary furniture and just some works of classical literature to keep him entertained. For exercise, he worked his garden and strolled through the woods, sometimes paddling across the pond in a boat.
On the whole, Walden is a tough book to read. One reason for this is that Walden contains many different themes and messages, as Thoreau addresses topics ranging from simplicity to government to economics. There are also references to works that might have been well-known at the time but are now all but unknown (at least to me, although I tend to think that even people back then may not have known those works). On top of all that, he writes very obtusely, using long sentences and uncommon words, requiring the reader to really focus on the writing. In short, it often feels like work to read.
The good thing about Walden is that, for whatever reason you come to it, you will come away from it with what you sought. For example, if you read Walden because you want to want to find ways to reconnect with nature, Thoreau delivers. If you read it because you want to learn about life in a New England town before the War Between the States, you will learn that life was different then than it is today, but still the same.
I approached Walden from a philosophical perspective because I wanted to understand how Thoreau thought. I wanted to learn what prompted this man to live like he did. I wanted to know what made him different, and why.
I walked away encouraged and amazed. The work was worth it.
As I read, I noted the passages that resonated with me. I don’t know that I’ll ever read all of Walden again, but I’ve at least gleaned many kernels of wisdom to chew on for the rest of my life. I’ve included some of them below for your edification and inspiration.
First, Thoreau says we need to be able to check our beliefs at the door and look at things objectively while considering new viewpoints, else we find ourselves lost when reality sets in:
It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.
Change is always possible:
So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.
Time is precious:
In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.
An expansive wardrobe, along with many other things in life, is unnecessary:
Let him who has work to do recollect that the object of clothing is, first, to retain the vital heat, and secondly, in this state of society, to cover nakedness, and he may judge how much of any necessary or important work may be accomplished without adding to his wardrobe.
Just because something is popular or fashionable doesn’t make it right or necessary:
Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.
It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow.
It was hard to own a home back then, too. Thoreau is disenchanted with “the system” and sees through the sham:
I think that I speak within bounds when I say that, though the birds of the air have their nests, and the foxes their holes, and the savages their wigwams, in modern civilized society not more than one half the families own a shelter. In the large towns and cities, where civilization especially prevails, the number of those who own a shelter is a very small fraction of the whole. The rest pay an annual tax for this outside garment of all, become indispensable summer and winter, which would buy a village of Indian wigwams, but now helps to keep them poor as long as they live. I do not mean to insist here on the disadvantage of hiring compared with owning, but it is evident that the savage owns his shelter because it costs so little, while the civilized man hires his commonly because he cannot afford to own it; nor can he, in the long run, any better afford to hire.
He talks a lot about “genius,” which I interpret to be one’s desire to do something, the driving force behind one’s actions:
A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince. Genius is not a retainer to any emperor, nor is its material silver, or gold, or marble, except to a trifling extent.
Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.
He prefers the relative simplicity that a laborer experiences to the never-ending toil and worry of the employer:
The laborer’s day ends with the going down of the sun, and he is then free to devote himself to his chosen pursuit, independent of his labor; but his employer, who speculates from month to month, has no respite from one end of the year to the other.
Living a simple life is a major theme:
In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.
Thoreau stresses independence and not letting anything or anyone dictate one’s path:
I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.
Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then.
He is critical of nursing a symptom of society rather than searching for a cure:
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.
And then we come to the classic Thoreau quote, the same one that I read as a junior in high school:
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.
Amazingly, Thoreau also addresses the “Netflix and chill” concept, which evidently isn’t new:
By closing the eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit everywhere, which still is built on purely illusory foundations.
He echoes much of what Solomon discusses in Ecclesiastes about accumulating property and possessions and the fleeting nature of it all:
With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident.
Thoreau stresses the value of being in nature to one’s mental health:
There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.
He discusses the concept of living in constant safety and security, and I wonder what he would say about the amount of security we have in our lives today:
The old and infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger—what danger is there if you don’t think of any?—and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position, where Dr. B. might be on hand at a moment’s warning. To them the village was literally a com-munity, a league for mutual defence, and you would suppose that they would not go a-huckleberrying without a medicine chest. The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs.
He talks about how traits can be generational and why people don’t change:
Commonly men will only be brave as their fathers were brave, or timid.
While he doesn’t hold society in a very high regard, he’s right about conformity:
But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.
And he runs counter-culturally in his thoughts on what really matters in life:
Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth.
An Irish farmer living nearby told Thoreau about how glad he was to be free in America, to which Thoreau again waxed philosophical on what freedom really is:
…and yet he had rated it as a gain in coming to America, that here you could get tea, and coffee, and meat every day. But the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things.
He discusses how easy it is to fall into a rut when living the same day over and over again:
Men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street, where their household echoes haunt, and their life pines because it breathes its own breath over again; their shadows, morning and evening, reach farther than their daily steps. We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character.
Ponder his insight into the value and sacredness all life:
No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.
And in the end, after his “experiment,” Thoreau has a few things to say to sum it all up. He talks about what matters most in life:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. 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.
The value of individualism:
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over ourselves, though when it is done we shall be sure to gaze still at the true ethereal heaven far above, as if the former were not?
Some words to keep you going when the going is tough:
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. The town’s poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any. Maybe they are simply great enough to receive without misgiving. Most think that they are above being supported by the town; but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means, which should be more disreputable. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me. The philosopher said: “From an army of three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take away his thought.” Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all dissipation. Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights. The shadows of poverty and meanness gather around us, “and lo! creation widens to our view.” We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same. Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.
And a final observation that may double as a warning:
If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.
Hopefully Thoreau has inspired you to strike out on your own path and seek out what really matters in life, rather than get mired in someone else’s life and settle for pacifiers. If you’d like to read Walden for yourself, you can access the full text for free on Gutenberg.org. You can also buy a copy on Amazon. I also recommend Ken Ilgunas’s book Walden on Wheels as a modern take on Thoreau and a sort of foil to what he writes in Walden. It’s also a fantastic story of its own. Thanks for reading.
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