I was 17. A wee baby. Writing was both sublime and torturous. Sometimes the words naturally flowed when I sat down and put pen to paper. Other times, in the absence of words, I found a deep sense of restlessness, dissatisfaction, and anger.
When my teacher wanted a 1000 word literary analysis on a historically important book during winter break, I chose Walden and gave him 3000. For five days I locked myself up in a room and did very little else other than reading and writing. All of this was very unnecessary but it speaks to the level of resonance I had with this book. I dug up this essay the other day and found its messages more pertinent now than ever. Walden will forever represent to me the meaning of genuine freedom: a life well-lived, one of deliberateness and integrity.
With that said, reading this now I no longer take the messages literally. I don’t think it’s necessary to live so removed from society, nor do I think material wealth is necessarily destructive. And I definitely don’t have disdain for people in poverty, as Thoreau does (but I do believe in the personal power inherent in each person to totally transform their destiny). Although I resonate with Thoreau’s weariness towards technology and the unfortunate reality of tools overpowering their masters, I also believe in the progress brought by technology.
So if you decide to read Walden, read between the lines. Look past the veneer of Thoreau’s disdain and look to the book’s essence–a reminder for not losing heart and living your truest, most ecstatic life.
Without further ado, reproduced for your pleasure, Walden as I read it at 17…
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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Walden is written by Henry David Thoreau, an American philosopher, poet, and environmental scientist. Published in 1854, it documents Thoreau’s two-year living experience in a cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. An advocate for self- reliance, Thoreau lived in the wild to escape from the materialist society with the intent of seeking enlightenment. Poetic and intricate, Walden is presented through a deeply reflective and private lens; weaved into accounts of pragmatic matters and concrete observations are Thoreau’s philosophies on spiritual elevation, connection with nature, self-sufficiency, and simplicity. In essence, Thoreau opposes blind conformity that exists in modern society, encouraging men to become conscious and find personal truths. Moreover, Thoreau emphasizes that progress should be marked by inwardly — not outwardly — enrichment of mankind. To symbolize spiritual rebirth, the course of two calendar years are compressed into one seasonal cycle as Walden moves from spring to spring, with each season carrying spiritual attributes that colour the narrative. Thoreau constructs his cabin during the first spring, cultivates bean fields and works on construction projects during the summer, engages in inwardly reflection during the winter, and “faces judgement” in the final spring as he feels all sins forgiven. Despite his yearning for conscious solitude, Thoreau ultimately longs for the attention of a large audience. This is revealed through latter portions of the book, where Thoreau preaches his views in the air of a powerful sermon.
Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 from a modest family in New England. After graduating from Harvard College in 1837, Thoreau befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson, leader of the transcendentalist movement. Aside from Walden, Thoreau is also known for writing Civil Disobedience– an outcry against corruptive powers of the government written after Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay poll tax. In general, Thoreau lived a quiet and simplistic life, maintaining close relationships with his family and friends, making his living through several modes: as a teacher, a pencil maker, and a land surveyor.
The Industrial Revolution metamorphosed the world during Thoreau’s time. With division of labour, specialization, and mechanization, the revolution shifted paradigms in economic, political, and social realms. Machines increased the productive efficiency of manufacturing, while individuals separated into capitalists and workers. The profusion of jobs offered by factories encouraged urbanization as massive populations migrated from rural areas into industrial cities. Despite the apparent prosperity, society at this time was in a state confusion. To begin, not all members of the society benefitted from the change. Notwithstanding the rise in living standards for capitalist bourgeoisies, the proletariats carried on lives of poverty. Politically, in spite of emerging democratic ideals, women and slaves continued to face inequality as they remain disenfranchised and underpaid. Economically, the influx of wealth deluded the affluent with materialistic values. Business became a priority above the mind and spirit: the capitalist now takes massive shares of the surplus and the labourer’s work is reduced to menial bits. Socially, the family unit is becoming fragmented as workers are forced to work long hours for sustenance. Religiously, the rationalistic Unitarianism and Deism — products of this calculating industrial age — could not satisfy the yearning for a deeper spiritual connection.
These conditions paved way for the critics of industrialization: the romanticists. In particular, Thoreau was a part of a romanticist group called the transcendentalists that believed in individualism and knowledge from intuition. Marked by high emotional intensity and influenced by Immanuel Kant, the transcendentalists questioned knowledge derived from logic and reason, since these rationalizing tools are but themselves products of the subjective mind. They stressed the importance of nature, while criticizing the monstrous industrial machines. They believed that divinity exists within every individual, and could only be discovered if the individual gains inwardly knowledge. In other words, one has the ability to “transcend” the confusion in society and see nature’s true design, if one becomes perceptive and follows intuition. However, Thoreau is somewhat different from his contemporary transcendentalists, who rejected sensory experiences and committed to Christianity or a dualistic view of mind and matter. Instead, Thoreau revived the conception of philosophy as a way of life — not only as discourse contained within abstract realms. Thoreau also submerged himself in a diverse range of thoughts. Drawing from classical Greek and Roman philosophy to ancient Asian wisdom, Thoreau is recognized as a truly distinctive thinker of his time.
During Thoreau’s time, the Industrial Revolution gave birth to inventions such as railroads, telegraphs, and power looms. Faced with this influx of technology, Thoreau responded to the revolution with skepticism, questioning whether technology truly helps to progress mankind. Regardless of the skepticism, Thoreau never dismissed the benefits of technology, thinking that “it is certainly better to accept than reject the advantages [of technology] … provided, of course, that they are genuine advantages.”
However, in Thoreau’s view, technology did not provide genuine advantages as it cannot improve standards of living. Since technology is costly, individuals in the 19th century had to labour more to enjoy these modern privileges. Consequently, “men have become the tool of their tools,” unable to indulge in free time and constantly trying to catch up with their consumption. Meanwhile, men were also deprived of enjoyment as they became separated from their natural environment. These two arguments are illustrated in the following example:
One says to me, “I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.” But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages … I start now on foot, and get there before night … You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time tomorrow … if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you; and as for seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should have to cut your acquaintance altogether.
In this example, Thoreau compares taking the railroad to Fitchburg with making the same journey on foot. He concludes that walking is the better choice since it allows one to enjoy the scenery. By contrast, in order to take the railroad, one would have to first earn the fare by labouring the whole day. Thus, although the railroad is faster, the one who walks will be the first to arrive and the one who enjoyed nature. By combining the two arguments, Thoreau contends that technology is useless if it does not holistically improve one’s quality of life. The railroad is only an improvement if one focuses on the speed of travel, but, in the context of society, it is not as economical and leisurely as walking.
Moreover, Thoreau insists that true progress — social progress — cannot be helped by material advancements. Any progress made by technology is illusionary, merely “improved means to an unimproved end.” Thoreau argues that men fail to identify the real issues that need to be solved:
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.
The telegraph is able to increase the speed of communication, but it cannot bridge the social gap, which is the actual reason for the lack of conversation. This serves as a metaphor: technology can provide mankind with material convenience, but they are tools confined to physical applications, incapable of making social advancements. In other words, technology cannot help make noblemen and kings, only savages with better technology.
Moreover, technology can be counterproductive. By creating excitement in society, technology has become a distraction. Men began allowing their lives to revolve around technology, spending time and energy into improving them. Occupied by such trinkets, “we now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.” Humans have neglected pursuits of higher truths and the examination of life, complacently submerging themselves in trivial material occupations. Additionally, technology further hinders progress by invading man’s way of thinking. Under the influence of industrial machinery, people became fixated on efficiency and changed into speedy creatures with shallow thoughts. Mechanical devices have also made men cold and calculating, forever bounded by strict schedules and predictable routines.
With the establishment of urban cities and manufacturing facilities, societal values of the 19th century became grossly homogenized. Deprived of leisure time in a fast paced society, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” following routines dictated by the factory system. Urban cities possessed powerful influences over the minds of its inhabitants, as individuals are almost never left alone to their own thoughts. Hence, Americans began conforming to ideas of materialism and inequity out of delusion.
Thoreau was highly critical of unthinking conformity, for he believed that the status quo should always be challenged. Thoreau argues that the majority, as a result of conformity, do not comprehend life’s true essence. To him, simply breathing and going through repetitive routines is the equivalent of being asleep. The definition of living is to wholly explore one’s faculty for thinking, and become fully aware of the world around oneself. This refers to Socrate’s idea — “the unexamined life is not worth living”:
The millions are awake enough for physical labour; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.
In this quote, Thoreau not only defines his views on the meaning of living, but also presents the reality of his time. Majority of the individuals — “millions” — living in the 19th century, trapped in a complex society and numbed by menial labour, is suppressed from leading a “divine life”. As a result of their circumstances, labourers turned into sleepwalkers, unable to enjoy their natural faculties for thinking and reach full consciousness.
Men became blinded by materialism due to this lack of consciousness, unable to distinguish between necessities and luxuries. Bourgeois values became invasive, establishing a cult-like presence in society. Thoreau often compares these shallow material concerns with religion, saying that “we worship not the Graces nor the Parcae, but Fashion.” Materialism is criticized by Thoreau because modern luxuries are superfluous. For instance, the purpose of clothes to conceal the body and provide warmth, and that is the only purpose it should have. Thoreau holds a utilitarian view regarding material matters, criticizing that, amongst other things, “ in the railroad car we are inclined to spend more on luxury than on safety and convenience.” Thus, Thoreau encourages individuals to select goods based on their function; acquiring only the important and the necessary, while eliminating the excess and the nonessential.
Aside from ills of the mind, the 19th century society faces problems of inequality. Despite economic growth and territorial advances in America, attitude towards minorities remained the same. With the onset of the Mexican-American war, questions regarding slavery resurfaced. As an abolitionist, Thoreau believed in democracy and rights of the individual; thereby he criticized slavery (further explored in Civil Disobedience. With his compassion, Thoreau has even helped a slave escape “forward toward the north star (Canada).” Moreover, Thoreau’s appreciation for people from all walks of life can be seen in the chapter Visitors. However, despite his disapproval for social inequality, Thoreau, with his status as an educated elite, does not believe in economic inequality. That is, Thoreau believes all men are drivers of their own destiny and poverty is self-imposed. Notably, Thoreau demonstrates strong disdain for beggars and sufferers of abject poverty, saying that “objects of charity are not guests.” As a distinctive thinker, Thoreau does not see poverty as a systemic issue — a notion coming from his individualistic philosophy, which is discussed in the following section.
Capitalism, in essence, represents the idea of “every man for himself.” With the help of economists such as Adam Smith, individualism gained significant momentum in the century prior. However, men have never achieved true individual freedom. Individualism in the capitalistic sense of the 19th century was still contained within large social institutions (such as factories, and cities) that dictate the way of life. For Thoreau and his contemporary transcendentalists, individualism represented freedom in a higher dimension — self-reliance and detachment from society.
Thoreau first examined self-reliance from an economics perspective. Being pragmatic, he keeps a detailed account of his spendings during his two-years’ stay by Walden Pond. Frequently offering specific financial advice to his readers, Thoreau says that by working six weeks a year, he could “meet all the expenses of living.” He achieved this by being a jack of all trades, and labouring through his own hands only. Thoreau feels that self-reliance is ultimately superior than neediness, criticizing the interdependency created in modern society by specialization as he points out the limitations of co-operation:
… the man who goes alone can start to-day; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.
In order words, co-operation is a social structure that impairs the self. Waiting “till that other is ready” creates inefficiency and hinders the potential of the individual. Being self-reliant allows one to work at one’s own pace and be responsible for one’s own life, whereas co-operation may bring disadvantages to one of the parties.
The social perspective of self-reliance is to reap the benefits of solitude. To Thoreau, solitude is the isolation of the mind; a mystical mental state of introspection, discovery, and enlightenment. Solitude leads to personal truths because it gives one the companion of oneself. Through solitude, an individual can detach from the world and gain a more objective understanding of society. By contrast, when men are engaged in society, they are swayed by others without thinking for themselves. For these reasons, Thoreau praises the importance of solitude:
I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.
Paradoxically, solitude does not make someone lonely, since one can be more lonely amidst a crowd. While in the crowd, one loses the valuable companion of oneself and one’s authenticity. When their unique attributes are lost, people lose the ability to form genuine relationships with others, and that, Thoreau argues, is ultimately a much more lonesome experience.
Lastly, by being self-reliant, the individual can lead a simple, pastoral life that provides freedom for thought. When one lives simply and acquires only the basic necessities for survival, one can have an abundance of leisure time to acquire wisdom:
… comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor… none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich inward.
Here Thoreau refers to ancient philosophers as the wisest with simple lives, stating that accumulating material riches obstructs humans on the path to enlightenment. Furthermore, by connecting with nature and escaping from the artificial cities, men are returning to their superior natural habitat. As a transcendentalist, Thoreau believes that truths can be found in nature if people become receptive to them. He asks, “Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?” Will you merely learn from books or will you see nature’s design through intuition and observation? Living a simple, pastoral life also gives men higher companions such as communion with nature, which is greater than human society’s petty concerns. Thoreau insists that this low- maintenance lifestyle is highly accessible; therefore, he condemns those who would rather live in urban poverty.