A while back, in Expectations and Awakenings, I posted about the first book that ignited my thinking. That book was Great Expectations, which I read when I was in the ninth grade. What the novel awakened me to was literature.
The second book which roused my thinking was Walden, which I read when I was eighteen, as part of a course in American Transcendentalism.
While Great Expectations awoke me to the beauty of language and the power of story, Walden awoke me to the necessity of resistance. It made me realize that one need not unthinkingly follow political, social, or cultural norms just because they have endured for hundreds of years.
Walden is structured into eighteen chapters, most of them 8-10 pages long — except for “Economy,” the first chapter, which is 50 pages long. Clearly “Economy” was the most important topic in Thoreau’s mind: the economy of making a living. For Thoreau, providing for one’s clothes, food, and shelter was something that should not be a daily, life-long burden. Thus he decided to live simply, with minimum wants, so that he could spend his days doing what he chose to do in life — observing nature and writing.
Thoreau’s advocacy of individual self-reliance (espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” first published in 1841, but given in lecture form as early as 1836) was quite different from what was advocated by Marx, Engels, Fourier, Owen, and other European socialists. Marx and Engels analyzed that capitalism (the social system that creates wealth for the few, poverty for the many) was the cause of social and economic inequality (and catastrophe) and needed to be replaced with a system based on production for the needs of human kind, not production for the profit of a few. They put forward a social solution, Thoreau an individual solution.
Both Transcendentalists such as Thoreau and communists such as Marx agreed that the role of philosophers should be to create a better world. Thoreau phrased it this way in Walden: To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, not even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
While Thoreau advocated individual action instead of group action, he still understood that the purpose of capitalist enterprise was profit. In Walden he wrote: I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing . . . as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.
His words on philosophy and on the factory system are not as often quoted as are his comments on individual action, perhaps the most famous of which is the quote on living deliberately.
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.
Thoreau studied nature intensively. He knew the names and behaviors of animals and plants, of the trees, the rivers, the ponds, and the seasons. “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails,” he urged.
Notice how deliberately Thoreau used the word deliberately in the two quotes above. He meant consciously and intentionally, in a calm and unhurried manner. And his observation about people being thrown off track by every new thing that comes along is even more true today than it was in 1848.
A life-long belief in self-reliance did not stop Thoreau from acting against injustices that didn’t personally affect him. He was an abolitionist and a participant in the Underground Railroad. After John Brown led a poorly supported raid on the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Thoreau defended his bearing arms against a government that permitted the buying, selling, exploitation, torture, and murder of men, women, and children whose ancestors had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Neither Thoreau’s conscience nor his reason would allow him to support a government that supported slavery.
One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house. I had gone down to the woods for other purposes.
Today Thoreau is considered one of America’s greatest writers, though he wasn’t considered that in his lifetime. Widely read in the Greek Classics, he often alluded to them in his writing. One of these allusions was to the myth of Antaeus, son of Gaea (goddess of Earth) and Poseidon (god of the Sea). Antaeus defeated all contenders in battle because each time his opponents tossed him to the ground, he gained more strength from contact with the earth. Talking about growing beans, Thoreau stated: “They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.”
Literary critics regard Walden as sui generis: unique. And I think that is true. No other nature writer I can think of, no other experimenter, has thought so deeply or written so well. Walden awakened me to truth, social justice, nonconformity, simplicity — and many other things. It is a rich, powerful work. Even though I do not believe that the ills of the world — ills such as war, poverty, racism, sexism, and child abuse, — can be cured by individual action such as Thoreau’s, I nevertheless have the greatest respect for his argument of encouraging each person to live deliberately.