In Walden, Thoreau recounts his days living alone in the woods for two years and two months on the edge of Walden Pond as an experiment on modes of living, which ended September 6th, 1847.
In this work, Thoreau demonstrates that you need a lot less to survive and thrive in life than society would have you believe. Often the rich and poor live in a state of discontentment because they have lost sight with what truly matters in life, but as Thoreau tries to show we are not trapped in these state of affairs if we choose to change them.
In many ways the rich are worse off than the poor. The rich spend their days acquiring material luxuries, while losing their freedom and genuine joys to their labor and toil, to the responsibilities and necessities of making a living in the world. Their acquisition of wealth only creates new artificial and unnecessary worries for themselves as they must manage such large estates and businesses, worry about the bottom line, and waste their wealth on meaningless and empty luxuries. It leaves such people in a state of “keeping up with the Jones.” Thoreau argues this is no way to live life.
“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine.”
The poor also inevitably lead dishonest lives in order to eat and live at the expense of others. In order to live and survive, they must live on credit and grovel to others who have wealth, which prevents them from being their real selves. They essentially must live in a constant state of dishonesty to get ahead in life or simply survive. Rich or poor, too often people live their entire lives unhappy, desperate for change, but unsure how to proceed. Even our entertainments are merely covers to fill our sense of misery and unhappiness.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
Human Beings do not have to live their lives this way; we can always change and remove our prejudices. We shouldn’t follow ways of life and ideas simply because they are old since it would never allow us to experiment and try new things or different methods of living one’s life, which may improve ourselves and the majority of humanity.
“Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost.”
He wants to consider what is actually necessary for life once you remove civilization and social expectations from the equation. Animals typically only require food and shelter. For humans, our needs seem to be good shelter, clothing, and fuel. He advocates living a more frugal and minamalist lifestyle. We can only experience inward growth and development by casting away outward luxuries since we can only know what we truly need and come to know ourselves by casting away all that is external and superfluous.
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty. Of a life of luxury the fruit is luxury, whether in agriculture, or commerce, or literature, or art. There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
The life Thoreau lives in Walden represents him living out his philosophical ideas and putting them into action. They’re more than just an untested theory of living; they’re based on lived experience. He claims it required only six weeks of labor to maintain himself and fulfill all his needs, leaving him with plenty of leisure time. The key is to live a simpler life, unworried about acquiring wealth and luxury, or the politics of the day, or what your neighbor thinks. In some ways, life is easier than we think and often all we do is complicate matters.
“In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.”
We shouldn’t live by society’s expectations or the wisdom that says things have always been this way. We should live deliberately, following our own dreams, and experimenting with our own lifestyles.
“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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
His method of living minimalistically in the woods allowed him to reduce life to its bare minimum in order to discover its foundations, identify what one really needs in life to thrive and survive, and be happy. We must become a seer of the world around us, pay attention to nature and our feelings once outside society to ascertain what really matters, and what brings us pleasure and joy once outside society’s expectation giving us false perceptions of what should bring us happiness. Nature, both observable yet mysterious, is capable of providing spiritual truths about the self and hinting at the Divine. In a sense, we must live in the moment and pay attention to the natural world and try to sustain ourselves with our work undistracted by any other task or thought.
With this in mind he is advocating for a limited solitude in which we have plenty of time to ourselves out in nature in order to contemplate life, truth, society, ourselves, and the world, to see what is transcendent in nature and life once you remove all the external trappings of human society.
The society of town is replaced by the society of nature. Even in solitude, we are never really alone, surrounded by animals and other living things, and their sounds and constant pressence. We only truly appreciate this wildlife when we cultivate a solitude away from humanity and society. Now animals aren’t something to hunt with friends or prizes to display for sport, but they are our companions and source of entertainment during our daily observations (the joy of watching a bird fly from tree to tree instead of hunting one!). Nevertheless, although it is important to cultivate solitude and free time in nature, we shouldn’t overdue it.
We are social creatures; it is important to have guests who can be our equals who may offer us philosophical perspectives and ideas to contemplate that help us think in new directions and grow. Likewise, even striving for minimalism, it is important to be generous and offer hospitality to our friends and visitors. Hospitality is a virtue in its own right and doesn’t require massive wealth. Indeed, like the epicureans, Thoreau shows real hospitality is more about time spent with friends in good conversation and genuine pleasure in each others company than fancy meals or extravagent gifts. In other words, although Thoreau removed himself from the everyday world and expectations of society, he didn’t completely divorce himself from friends, neighbors, and connections with humanity.
For Thoreau, farming is a sacred act which brings us closest to a symbiosis with nature. It helps us return to our roots and ancient primal human experience. He transforms the act of hoeing beans into an mythological struggle of self-improvement. Living off the land in this way is as important in understanding and experiencing nature as listening to the sounds of birds chirping or appreciating the aesthetic pleasure of water rippling under the wind. Contemplating nature helps us experience the divine and God. All nature is the artistic work of God; to contemplate and enjoy it is to experience the Divine’s greatest work. Nature is not some dead thing to be studied in the laboratory, but a living and inspiring force, a source of poetry and beauty and wonder and philosophical musing. To enjoy and experience nature is to know God whose artistry is superior to any artificial and artistic creation of humanity.
“Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf. What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last? This phenomenon is more exhilarating to me than the luxuriance and fertility of vineyards. True, it is somewhat excrementitious in its character, and there is no end to the heaps of liver lights and bowels, as if the globe were turned wrong side outward; but this suggests at least that Nature has some bowels, and there again is mother of humanity. This is the frost coming out of the ground; this is Spring. It precedes the green and flowery spring, as mythology precedes regular poetry. I know of nothing more purgative of winter fumes and indigestions. It convinces me that Earth is still in her swaddling clothes, and stretches forth baby fingers on every side. Fresh curls spring from the baldest brow. There is nothing inorganic. These foliaceous heaps lie along the bank like the slag of a furnace, showing that Nature is “in full blast” within. The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit,—not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic. Its throes will heave our exuviæ from their graves. You may melt your metals and cast them into the most beautiful moulds you can; they will never excite me like the forms which this molten earth flows out into. And not only it, but the institutions upon it, are plastic like clay in the hands of the potter.”
The ancients celebrated entire religious festivals around farming and the growing of crops, more directly connecting their spiritual selves with their farming activity. If we do it well we become a part of nature and live in harmony with it, but it is an activity that can easily degenerate into making profits and accumulating wealth. Commerce in farming not only degrades the act spiritually, but also sensually. To illustrate this point, he gives an example of eating huckleberries right from their source, noting that people in Boston who eat them after they have been shipped a long distance by a farmer trying to make a profit, have never really tasted a huckleberry because the taste changes and is adulterated by the distance and time to transport them. Nature and human institutions are constantly changing. Nature is endlessly beautiful because it is so varied and constantly changes, while human institutions lack deeper value precisely because they are so ephemeral.
“Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our Cattle-shows and so called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin. It is the premium and the feast which tempt him. He sacrifices not to Ceres and the Terrestrial Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather. By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber.”
To try to make a profit or living from nature alienates us from nature. We can’t really appreciate and care for nature, be a steward for it, if all we care about is making a profit from her since we don’t care or appreciate it for its own sake, but only for the sake of the wealth it might bring us. Of course, one might disagree and say having a financial interest and making a profit would naturally make a farmer or businessmen care more about nature’s well-being for the sake of his sustaining his profits and livelihood. Likewise, living in this way provides a partial solution to poverty and fears about theft. Thoreau was not too concerned with strangers visiting his place while he was away in town or visiting other places; he argues it is only excessive accumulation of wealth and goods that encourage people who possess little to engage in criminality. If men lived simply, only taking what they needed instead of trying to accumulate massive amounts of wealth or simply more than they need, then we would have no need for criminality. People wouldn’t lack the ability to meet their own needs and there wouldn’t be any excess wealth for people to steal. Thoreau shows his mode of living in the book requires very little startup money to get started and thus is available to most impoverished people if they were willing to put in the effort to change their lot and follow his path.
What he lacks in money he makes up in time spent enjoying the beauty of nature and being inspired by the natural world around him spiritually and artistically.
“After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. She has long ago taken her resolution.”
Thoreau comes to realizes that before the constant presence of nature away from human society, the most essential questions of humanity about purpose and meaning are meaningless. To exist and enjoy Nature is the answer to these questions. We are as much a part of nature as any other animal and it is easy to forget this living in civilization. He also is arguing that Nature is not there to reveal some deeper human truth about meaning and purpose, but rather it has value in itself. Even if it did have secrets to reveal about human existence it would not tell us so directly; as Thoreau hints it is only indirectly by appreciating it for its own sake and allowing us to be away from human society that it can shed light on on what is eternal and constant once we step away from human society and we can come to know our own authentic thoughts devoid of social expectations; the truths it offers is the fresh and new perspective it allows away from human institutions and the indirect experience of the divine.
“If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself.”
Our real goal should be to escape from society and live as close as possible in nature with as little need as possible from the social world in order to truly come to know ourselves, our authentic interests and needs, and not what society tells us we require. Our primary mission in life should be to come to know thyself. He went to the woods to help discover himself, to live other lives and explore other paths and possibilities. We can only come to know others and the world in all its forms by coming to know ourselves.
“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. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.”
If we live deliberately we can fulfill our dreams and live our best lives. We shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with our own lives and make substantial changes if only just to try it out. Maybe we will decide it is not for us, but at least then we tried and learned this truth for ourselves.
“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. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”