The great classic of naturalist philosophy, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, is a fascinating book in so many ways: tremendously beautiful, personal, insightful, and moving.
Thoreau was born 1817 and died 1862. He was an author, poet, anarchist, and abolitionist who wrote more than 20 volumes of essays. He made his home in Massachusetts and attended Harvard. He came to Walden to live after working in his parent’s pencil factory, to which he returned after leaving Walden. He made several patented improvements in the pencil.
It is easy to understand why Walden has become part of the modern canon and why so many generations have benefited from it. But in order to comprehend its meaning, it is best to think of it as a work of aesthetics not policy, a personal reflection and not a political program, one that teaches about the merit of work, patience, close observation, and the loveliness of the order around us that we neither design nor finally control.
He sought not to end business but to purify it and observe its essences. Sadly, this is not generally how the work is perceived. It has too often been invoked as a symbol of modern left-environmentalism that relies on state means of controlling people. So let us immediately correct this impression. Nowhere does Thoreau attack private property; on the contrary, he is grateful for the ownership of Walden by his friend and benefactor Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Nowhere does he criticize economic exchange; on the contrary, he celebrates it. Nowhere does he call for government control of resources. On the contrary, he writes: “I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State.” Even more famously, he writes: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
Indeed, there are many passages in Walden that reveal that his essential anarchism is as strong as ever. His was an experiment in a new way of living, away from the state and away from rising technologies of the time and the increased complexification of life. It was an attempt to discover true value apart from market value and discern how far one could get away from the division of labor and still retain happiness and thrive.
Economics was a particular concern.
“My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as foolish.”
He sought not to end business but to purify it and observe its essences. “I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man.” In many ways, he was trying to recapture the romance of the American ideal of self-reliance.
The most dramatic moments come while building his house, which he does with materials supplied by friends. He carefully records all the money he spends and tries to keep it as simple and low as possible. He eventually finds that he can do this for a fraction of the price people are paying in the city. He finds that the same is true of clothing and food. Of course time does not figure into his calculations. He is totally devoted to the task and admirably so. He finds music in the bird song, the distant church bells, the running brook, and even the sound of the train.
He learns how truly useless are most of the possessions we aspire to buy and hold, and how little we really need when it comes right down to it. He is stunned to discover how much debt people are willing to bear to accommodate their materialistic lifestyles. The most valuable things we can have around us are books and friendships. The most prized possession of all is truth.
Walden proclaims many virtues: self-reliance, simplicity, inner peace, spiritual awareness, our oneness with nature, and humility in the face of the complexity of the world around us. One can’t but admire Thoreau’s total dedication to discovering all that he discovered, and he does find virtues that are too often missing in our times.
We desire a world of change, a world of progress.What can a lover of industrial progress and urban life draw from his account? Look at the equally lovely reflections by F.A. Hayek on the orderliness of social life or look to the poetic defense of the city and manufacturing by Ayn Rand. They both offer similarly celebratory accounts of different aspects of the world around us. The social order managed by human volition and choice can be every bit as awe-inspiring as the natural environment that surrounds a cabin in the woods.
A World of Change
Recall that in the end, Thoreau left Walden. Why? “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
So it is for all of us. We desire a world of change, a world of progress. We can learn from the stillness and predictability of nature, but there is a force within us that wants to make a difference, to shape the world according to our wishes. Given this, we should remember the dominant theme of both Hayek and Thoreau: the incapacity of the human mind finally to rule either nature or the social order driven forward by human action and choice. At whatever stage we find ourselves in life, wherever we happen to live, “we need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”
Some of my favorite passages:
- “I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. ”
- “No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.”
- “How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? ”
- “Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances”
- “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life”
- “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”
- “For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it.”
- “And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.”
- “If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. ”
- “It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women.”
- “I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers.”
- “We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”
- “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”
- “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
A welcome reminder to crack open some Thoreau this autumn. It always irritates me when people try to great-man him as some sort of environmental superhero. There are train tracks right near his cabin site and he liked the train, a lot.
I’ve always appreciated the personal freedom vibes he repeatedly alludes to in his essay Walking. For example,
“Some do not walk at all; others walk in the highways; a few walk across lots. Roads are made for horses and men of business. I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry to get to any tavern or grocery or livery-stable or depot to which they lead. I am a good horse to travel, but not from choice a roadster. The landscape-painter uses the figures of men to mark a road. He would not make that use of my figure. I walk out into a nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in. You may name it America, but it is not America; neither Americus Vespueius, nor Columbus, nor the rest were the discoverers of it. There is a truer amount of it in mythology than in any history of America, so called, that I have seen.”
Cheeky joke: Thoreau must be a libertarian, cos he hated roads.
Simplicity creates freedom.