On Walden

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.

Image from the Thoreau Reader
Image from the Thoreau Reader

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.)


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

4 thoughts on “On Walden”

  1. Hi Rich, Great to read your thoughts on this book, one that had a pretty powerful impact on me in parts, and spoke to me very loudly when I read it near exactly a year ago. I agree that Thoreau is hard to like, to quote another man who retreated to the woods and wrote a much more readable, although not so philosophical book, Sylvain Tesson (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/01/consolations-forest-sylvain-tesson-review1), Walden is a “very strange book” and yet like you, I’m inclined to agree, that there is something deeply compelling and inspiring about how Thoreau views things. And I really get a kick out of how, he could be referencing modern society today, with some of his observations.

    Some highlights for me, were in his discussing houses, the line “Empty Chambers, for empty guests”, and I especially liked the idea / metaphor of ‘weaving baskets’ but rather than working to persuade men to buy my baskets, studying instead how to avoid having to sell them” (p.13). Tesson reckons that Thoreau is so serious because there is “joy in the woods, but not an ounce of humour” something that more or less I am inclined to agree with (albeit only a couple of months into living in the woods) so maybe that explains the seriousness, or maybe you just need to be pretty serious to even contemplate doing such a thing like that in the first place 🙂

    Personally, I like the idea of living for a while “a (more) primitive existence in the midst of an outward civilisation” (p.7) in order to figure out what might be more important. But I am inclined to suggest, and to respond to your reflections too, that whilst living with greater simplicity, and for example, not feeling the need to ‘wear new suits to do new jobs’, and not having to market one’s wares, at the expense of actually producing some that are worth buying, are high aims and one’s that I would like to recommend to plenty/most of people I have encountered in recent life, I think it is only in connecting with other people that you find the humour, or warmth to sustain the sort of intrinsic change that, like you, I find inspiring in Thoreau and am attempting to embrace myself.

    Incidentally, I read somewhere, I can’t remember where now, that Thoreau’s mother used to come and deliver him food parcels and clean clothing every Sunday when he was living in the woods, I have no idea if that is true or if it makes anything he has to say any less credible or valuable, but it is an amusing idea all the same, and perhaps, if true, only serves to support my wider point 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this mate, and hope all is well with you.

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