Walden: Misconceptions and Relevance

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods…”

The following words should have read: “except, not really.”

Growing up, I always understood Henry David Thoreau‘s Walden to be a tale of isolation – of man leaving the “civilized” world behind to live only off of the bounty of nature. This rose in large part from Thoreau being a transcendentalist. One of that philosophy’s core principles is a love of nature and the belief that there is inherent goodness in people that comes from the natural environment. Society is the enemy, the corrupter of our core purity.

So, going into Walden, I expected a sharp cutoff from the human world. This is not the case. To quote Thoreau’s next words in his opening sentence: “a mile from any neighbor.” A mile. Walden was published in 1854, six years before the start of the American Civil War. Please consider the transportation technology of the time, then think – one mile.

While it is true that Thoreau lives in cabin by himself (and built by himself), he is far from isolated from his fellow man. Indeed, Thoreau journeyed to town quite often, met many fellow Americans within the neighboring woods, and even hosted gatherings in his snug abode. Much of Walden is commentary on the life of his fellowmen as he observes it.

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Granted, Thoreau uses this interaction to point out the flaws, chiefly his perception that too many people live over-complicated lives that are restricted by societal norms before they even begin. In Walden‘s opening pages, Thoreau stresses the simplicity he is embracing, as well as the affordability of living away from civilization.

Yeah, you read right. Even in 1854, there were people being like “Boston is way too expensive. Just buy land in rural Massachusetts.” Go figure.

This was the second surprising factor of Walden: it’s relevance. 163 years have passed since Walden‘s publication, and one could argue that its appreciation of nature is more valuable than ever. Thoreau talks of striving to live with nature as a neighbor – using the natural benefits of the land to enrich existence – rather than attempt to possess as much of it as possible. Of course, the idea that man could impact the natural world was still beyond even thinkers like Thoreau. Conversation was about preserving beauty instead of sustainability.

Walden also presents a challenge to a predestination of life. Like in 1854, human beings are born with a blueprint already laid out. We go to school, earn an education, then leave and enter the workforce. Perhaps marriage or another social contract is involved at some point. Thoreau sees the blind pursuit of work as a missed life – attributing it to a large part of the over-complication. A modern retelling might say “we work to obtain money to purchase the things we didn’t know we need.”

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“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Mass marketing campaigns and commercials did not exist in Thoreau’s day (at least not like how we understand them) but I have to feel that he would be completely against the consumerism in American society.

One of Walden‘s most endearing messages happened in passing, When Thoreau remarks on the repercussions of his decision to not pay taxes: “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 senatehouse.”

Thoreau refused to pay taxes because his federal government, at the time, supported the institution of slavery. It was not out of some selfish desire to horde wealth, but rather a protest for the common good. This is the only mention Thoreau makes of his personal relationship with his government, but it is a powerful one and reflects that, then as now, certain citizens had grave concerns and condemnations of their government’s actions.

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“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

Walden is a book that reads like a slow walk through the woods, with frequent pauses to overturn rocks or examine leaves. It bit at my ambitions to read for the sake of turning the next page, imploring me instead to enjoy and dissect the passage I was on. On this level, I would declare Thoreau’s intent a complete success.

Walden is perfect reading for those who long to get away – to slow down the rapid ticketing of time that technology has brought us. While I personally reject Thoreau’s assumption that nature is intrinsically superior to society, I appreciated the form in which he made his case. While it moved at a leisurely stroll, it did it through impeccable scenery.

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“However mean your life is, meet 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 doors as early in the spring. Cultivate property 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… Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

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