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.
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau moved to live in solitude in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts. Walden is his account not only of the rhythms and patterns of the time he spent there, but a series of reflections on wider themes, particularly the rhythms and patterns of mankind.
Reading Walden and other biographical details of Thoreau, I personally found it hard to like him. He feels too critical of fellow men and too impressed by his own actions and way of doing things.
Nevertheless there is a kernel in his thinking I found to be very attractive. This was the sense of focusing only on the things that matter in life to you, and not being distracted from them by “pretty toys”.
Thoreau has found that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and that a “stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed under what are called the games and amusements of mankind”. As a result, he feels that “men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street… their shadows morning and evening reach further than their daily steps.”
Where I found Thoreau most appealing was in his encouragement that the ability to change away from this can come from ourselves. He notes we are all “sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones” and that we must therefore:
Learn to reawaken ourselves and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn… I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour… Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.
Though it may not take as radical a solution as being alone in a secluded wood for two years, this essence of Thoreau’s thinking makes Walden a worthwhile, if not challenging, study.
(For readers who may not read it all, the sections on Economy, Where I Lived, Reading and the Conclusion contain Thoreau’s most pertinent arguments relevant to the themes I highlight above.)