Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Go your own way
In 1845 Henry David Thoreau built a 10 x 15 foot cabin in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there for two years, two months, and two days. Out of this experience came the book Walden, first published in 1854. Embarking on this sojourn of solitude was an attempt to escape the distractions, conventions, and frivolous fashions of urban society, to reconnect with the essentials of existence, and to get at the very root of life. By practicing a simpler way of living, engaging in a more direct relationship with nature, and replacing the hubbub of civilization with quiet contemplation, Thoreau hoped to experience life more fully and richly. The result of this experiment is this classic of American literature, an inspirational combination of philosophy, poetry, and natural history.

Walden is a manifesto of nonconformity and individualism. Thoreau urges readers to forget how society says you should live and to live by your own compass, by what you feel is right. Disregard public opinion and take command of your own fate. The materialistic culture of modern, civilized society distracts us from finding our true direction in life. Solitude and introspection are the means by which to recover one’s bearings. Through a simplified, more natural way of life, Thoreau was able to strip away the unnecessary psychic baggage of society’s traditions and expectations, allowing him to examine his life objectively. By Thoreau’s account, even in the mid-19th century Americans were slaves to the rat race, working themselves like beasts of burden, ever accumulating debt, all for the sake of luxuries that were supposed to bring pleasure to their lives but only compounded their misery. He begins the book by laying bare all the absurdities of this unhealthy cycle, insightfully picking apart the ills of his contemporary society with a biting, sarcastic wit. It is remarkable how well his critique of “modern life” has held up over the past 150 years. His opinion of the railroad, for example, can be just as accurately applied to today’s internet when he questions the benefit of all this high-speed communication if people have nothing meaningful to say to one another. “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life,” he writes, “are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” To experience the true joy of life, quit living for your possessions and get your mind and spirit in order. Though the language of Thoreau often sounds antiquated to the 21st century reader, the message of Walden is still as vital as the day it was written.

In describing his two years in the woods, Thoreau provides poetically beautiful and scientifically accurate depictions of the scenery, inhabitants, and processes of the natural world. Yet for Thoreau these empirical observations are only a means to an end. As a member of the Transcendentalist movement, Thoreau saw nature as a medium through which the higher philosophical truths of the universe are revealed. It is to nature that we should turn to seek guidance in living our lives, not to the traditions, mores, and manners agreed upon by civilized society. One need not retreat to the wilderness to lead a natural life. In fact, Walden Pond was only a few miles out of town, and Thoreau had visitors almost daily. Isolation was not the point of his experiment, but rather self-reliance, in thought as well as deed. To find direction in life one must seek inwardly. Nature is free to all, and all are free to learn its lessons and live by them. Let Walden be your guide. There is profound wisdom to be gleaned from each paragraph for those willing to seek it.

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