In the process of writing my analysis and notes, I have mentioned which chapters I liked least, but not those I like most. My favorites are "Where I Lived and What I Lived For" and "Conclusion," but I slightly prefer "Conclusion" because it is more positive and gives the reader permission to live his or her own life. I think "Conclusion" must be Thoreau's most popular chapter for this reason.
However, there is a real danger. A reader can skip the parts he or she doesn't like, accept Thoreau's permission to march independently, and live a life or advocate policies that Thoreau would have deplored. In my introduction, I pointed out that Thoreau's words are quoted by liberals, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and conservatives alike, but I think that the majority of these people share few of his beliefs. For instance, Michael Deaver's biography of Ronald Reagan is called A Different Drummer, using a famous line from this chapter. I'm sure that Reagan would have liked the title, but he was no Thoreauvian. Reagan pushed small countries to abandon local self-sufficiency and supported Adam Smith's economic theories, while Thoreau advocated the opposite. Thoreau would have also opposed other aspects of Reaganomics along with the massive US fleet build-up and the war in Nicaragua.
Some libertarians have founded a Cato Institute and a "Thoreau Institute" to criticize government controls on big business and the wealthy, but they never mention the controls that businesses place on the individual. Their thinking is more Ayn Rand than Henry Thoreau. Their "Thoreau Institute" (this is not the Thoreau Institute owned by the Thoreau Society) supports automobiles over mass transit and user fees for national forests. It's difficult to imagine Thoreau owning an automobile, and he believed in free and open access to all land, public or private. The few statements made by the "Thoreau Institute" about Thoreau indicate a deep misunderstanding. For instance, Randle O'Toole, the leader of the group, writes:
The railroads were just getting going, and while Thoreau didn't like the sound of a steam locomotive intruding on his refuge at Walden Pond, he objected equally to those who vandalized the railroads and to those who attempted to regulate them in the name of the "public interest." http://www.ti.org/OToole.htmlAnyone who has actually read Walden would know that Thoreau did not live in a refuge and didn't object to the sound of the locomotive, but that he was upset about the destruction of the woods for fuel and crossties, and that he felt the railroad was unneccessary. He never complained about people vandalizing the railroad nor did he concern himself with railroad regulations. These statements all stem from a failure to recognize Thoreau's use of a metaphor in "Civil Disobedience":
Trade and commerce, if they were not made of india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads.Thoreau is just saying, in a colorful way, that legislators do more harm than good in their attempts to regulate trade; he is not talking about railroad regulations at all, nor is he attempting to tell us anything about vandalism. By the way, this is the only instance of his supporting trade and business over the government, and everywhere else, as you should know by now, Thoreau attacks our preoccupation with trade and business, saying that they degrade people. When he attacks the government, it is because of the way it is treating people, specifically the Southern slaves and the Mexicans. I think Thoreau, who never would join any organization, would have been furious at finding an organization named after him that argues against his principles.
Failure to understand Thoreau is found on the left as well. Thoreau would have wanted us to take care of the environment, but any environmentalist who lives in a big house and loves his automobile is not a Thoreauvian. Nor would Thoreau have liked the present national park system which caters to motorists and restricts cyclists, hikers, and backpackers. He wouldn't have favored socialistic movements over individual action; he ignored Brook Farm and Fruitlands. Emma Goldman is especially interesting to me because she had to support herself using Thoreauvian methods (sewing garments at home and keeping her personal costs low) while advocating the formation of unions. Why didn't she instead teach the workers to become independent of their employers?
Since I mentioned the Thoreau Society, I might as well tell an amusing story about them. I visited their meeting in Concord, and we were standing around talking outside on a very warm night, when someone announced that there was a small room available upstairs which was air-conditioned. Everyone stampeded upward. If Thoreau had attended that meeting, he and I would have been the only two who preferred the night sky.
I think Monhandas Gandhi, more than any other political leader, followed the truths that Thoreau discovered (Gandhi was also strongly influenced by Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin, whose views were similar to Thoreau's). Gandhiji had his party adopt the spinning wheel as its emblem because he saw local initiative and self-sufficiency as the solution to the problems of India, and he continually educated people to reform their own lives. He practiced everything he advocated, personally cleaning up human wastes, for example. His battle for justice was that of an individual. He would publically break an unjust law, such as the law against making salt, and then ask the judge to give him the most severe penalty possible, telling the judge that when he was free that he would immediately break that same law again. On one occasion, he asked every worker in India to stay home for one day. The British told their workers that anyone who did not come in to work would be fired. That day, not a single worker in India showed up to work! That little man in a dhoti could float the British Empire like a chip (see below). Unfortunately, Gandhi could not prevent his own party from abandoning his principles after his death.
What is a Thoreauvian? Is there a list of characteristics that can be used for self-evaluation? Thoreau did not provide a list, not did he want imitators:
I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead. The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do. It is by a mathematical point only that we are wise, as the sailor or the fugitive slave keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life.
But, at the same time, throughout Walden and in his other writings, Thoreau stresses, time after time, the truths that he has discovered. I consider the truth to be the polestar which Thoreau wants to guide us. A person who accepts the permission to do whatever he or she wishes without listening to the wisdom Thoreau supplies might as well be listening to the US Army recruitment message, "Be all that you can be" (which very likely indirectly comes from Thoreau as well). So I would class as Thoreauvian only those who demonstrate that they have gathered his wisdom as well. This still allows for a considerable latitude, as Thoreau says. A Thoreauvian does not have to live in a cabin in the woods (Thoreau only did so for two years) or to imitate any of his behavior, but a Thoreauvian would have the following characteristics.
First, I think a Thoreauvian is a person who is self-reliant, self-actualizing, and self-sufficient. As children, we were none of these things, and many people remain children all of their lives. Being self-reliant does not mean getting your own car and your own apartment; that just swaps you from one dependency to another; it means making your own decisions about who you are and what you want to do with your life. Being self-actualizing means that you don't sit around waiting for someone (such as the US Army) to do something to you but that you actively seek your own direction and purpose. And being self-sufficient means that you learn how to do things for yourself. It's impossible to learn how to do everything, and it would be foolish to try to do so, but it's rewarding and economical to solve many of life's problems on your own.
Second, a Thoreauvian does not live to acquire money, a big house, fine cars, expensive foods and wines, etc. because these things are not valuable. A Thoreavian finds true wealth in personal experience, the beauty of Nature, the quest for knowledge, self-exploration and discovery, plain foods, and simple healthy transportation, such as walking, cycling, and skating.
Finally, I would expect a Thoreavian to be tolerant towards people of other cultures, religions, beliefs, and behaviors because a Thoreauvian recognizes that there is more than one pathway to the truth. On the other hand, a Thoreau would not agree with the nonsensical notion that any way of thinking or doing is just as good as any another. (Each of these points, in these three paragraphs can be supported by direct quotes from Thoreau.)
I think Walden is a valuable source of wisdom. Much of this wisdom, Thoreau found from reading or from his contemporaries, but he also had to sift out a lot of empty truisms as well. Thoreau has been acknowledged to be the first person to write about ecological subjects, but one should note that he also provides profound insights into psychology, sociology, and anthropology, long before those sciences were initiated. Frank Lloyd Wright said he was influenced by Thoreau's remarks on architecture.
Thoreau makes some errors as well, as he was a human being and not a messiah. I find his statement that he could live on board nails to be nonsense, his measurements of the temperature in the bucket in his room to be useless, his prescription that everyone read ancient bibles to be impractical, and his notion that everyone ought to remain pure in mind to be unrealistic. As to his advice on diet, I call it a draw, as he recommended eating simple foods and less meat but failed to see the need for a balanced diet. But, I consider all the rest of his thinking to be sound and sensible, even in the year 2002.
I believe the world would be a better place if we all adopted a Thoreauvian lifestyle. By living in smaller houses, walking or bicycling to work, acquiring less junk, and spending more time in pursuit of Nature and knowledge, people would have better lives, and our society would be kinder to the environment.
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|To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery. Thank Heaven, here is not all the world. The buckeye does not grow in New England, and the mockingbird is rarely heard here. The wild goose is more of a cosmopolite than we; he breaks his fast in Canada, takes a luncheon in the Ohio, and plumes himself for the night in a southern bayou. Even the bison, to some extent, keeps pace with the seasons cropping the pastures of the Colorado only till a greener and sweeter grass awaits him by the Yellowstone. Yet we think that if rail fences are pulled down, and stone walls piled up on our farms, bounds are henceforth set to our lives and our fates decided. If you are chosen town clerk, forsooth, you cannot go to Tierra del Fuego this summer: but you may go to the land of infernal fire nevertheless. The universe is wider than our views of it.||It may seem odd that Thoreau is suddenly recommending travel, but his real purpose is to recommend through analogy a mental voyage. The New England soil is full of stones left by the glaciers, so these become fences. Thoreau uses them to make another metaphor. Darwin wrote about Tierra del Fuego ("the land of fire") in his Voyage of the Beagle. Thoreau picks this destination because its name is suggestive of hell.|
|Yet we should oftener look over the tafferel of our craft, like curious passengers, and not make the voyage like stupid sailors picking oakum. The other side of the globe is but the home of our correspondent. Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing, and the doctors prescribe for diseases of the skin merely. One hastens to southern Africa to chase the giraffe; but surely that is not the game he would be after. How long, pray, would a man hunt giraffes if he could? Snipes and woodcocks also may afford rare sport; but I trust it would be nobler game to shoot one's self.
"Direct your eye right inward, and you'll find
What does Africa, -- what does the West stand for? Is not our own interior white on the chart? black though it may prove, like the coast, when discovered. Is it the source of the Nile, or the Niger, or the Mississippi, or a North-West Passage around this continent, that we would find? Are these the problems which most concern mankind? Is Franklin the only man who is lost, that his wife should be so earnest to find him? Does Mr. Grinnell know where he himself is? Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes, -- with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty cans sky-high for a sign. Were preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely? Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice. Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone. --
"Erret, et extremos alter scrutetur Iberos.
Let them wander and scrutinize the outlandish Australians.
It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some "Symmes' Hole" by which to get at the inside at last. England and France, Spain and Portugal, Gold Coast and Slave Coast, all front on this private sea; but no bark from them has ventured out of sight of land, though it is without doubt the direct way to India. 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 bead against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve. Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist. Start now on that farthest western way, which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific, nor conduct toward a wornout China or Japan, but leads on direct, a tangent to this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sun down, moon down, and at last earth down too.
Sailors used oakum to patch leaks inside the hull. Thoreau advocates being active participants in the journey through life, not focusing on petty details. He suggests our journey through life is superfical ("great-circle sailing" and "diseases of the skin"). He suggests that we should hunting different game -- ourselves.
In Thoreau's day, the interior of Africa was unexplored, so the map was left blank. One shore was called the "Black Coast." Thus he is saying that our souls are unexplored, although they may be "black" (evil) when examined. Thoreau mentions famous explorations, but "this continent" means our souls once again.
Franklin was lost while seeking the Northwest Passage and left a pile of cans behind. Grinnell was searching for him. When Thoreau asks if he was the only one lost, he implies that we may be lost as well. He suggests again that we explore ourselves, finding not only continents but worlds within our minds.
Russia ("the earthy empire of the Czar") is the largest country in the world, but Thoreau considers it insignificant compared to the regions within the mind. Thoreau sees patriotism as sacrificing the greater (the internal realm) to the less (the physical). He says the South Seas expedition simply proves we find it easier to endure hardships than to be alone and explore ourselves.
He suggests an exploration of the world might be OK since it might lead to self-discovery. "Symmes' Hole," used in science fiction stories, was supposed to lead to the center of the earth; Thoreau wants us to find a similar passage to our own mental interiors. "Out of sight of land" would mean more than a superficial exploration, and a "direct way to India" would mean a passage to the wealth within.
He then suggests that the greatest of all discoveries, one which will allow a person to speak all languages and outsmart the Sphinx (which was outsmarted by Oedipus), is to obey the philosopher (Socrates said, "Know thyself") and explore within.
Becoming the master of your own mind dwarfs any other skill you could possibly learn.
|It is said that Mirabeau took to highway robbery "to ascertain what degree of resolution was necessary in order to place one's self in formal opposition to the most sacred laws of society." He declared that "a soldier who fights in the ranks does not require half so much courage as a foot-pad," -- "that honor and religion have never stood in the way of a well-considered and a firm resolve." This was manly, as the world goes; and yet it was idle, if not desperate. A saner man would have found himself often enough "in formal opposition" to what are deemed "the most sacred laws of society," through obedience to yet more sacred laws, and so have tested his resolution without going out of his way. It is not for a man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he find himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet with such.||Thoreau considers Mirabeau's attempt to break away from society as "idle, if not desperate" because anyone who is a man (self-actualized and self-reliant) will find plenty of opportunity to fight with society and the government simply by being true to himself or herself and by following the sacred laws which he or she has discovered. If society and the government are just, they will not oppose this freedom.|
|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. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is Eve or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the Highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.||Thoreau rarely called his house a cabin, but he does so here to allude to a ship's cabin. His classmate, Richard Henry Dana, wrote "Two Years Before the Mast," an excellent book. Thoreau is saying that by leaving, he was in a better place to observe the world. I think Thoreau's purpose here is to argue in favor of a less-established life. However, Thoreau actually moved into the Emerson home and back to his parents, which is less exciting. However, he continued to visit the woods daily, just as before.|
|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.||Thoreau's living in the woods, farming, and living the simple life had been experiments, with very likely the idea for a book already in mind. However, they proved the main argument of his life to be true. By living the ideal life, one will be more successful than expected and will learn to interpret life quite differently from what society teaches. A simple life will solve the imaginary problems of loneliness, lack of money, and lack of ability. Rather than criticize the daydreamer, Thoreau suggests acting on one's dreams.|
|It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and who, which Bright can understand, were the best English. As if there were safety in stupidity alone. I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagance! it depends on how you are yarded. The migrating buffalo, which seeks new pastures in another latitude, is not extravagant like the cow which kicks over the pail, leaps the cowyard fence, and runs after her calf, in milking time. I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments; for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression. Who that has heard a strain of music feared then lest he should speak extravagantly any more forever? In view of the future or possible, we should live quite laxly and undefined in front our outlines dim and misty on that side; as our shadows reveal an insensible perspiration toward the sun. The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains. The words which express our faith and piety are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant like frankincense to superior natures.||Thoreau considers the notion that he ought to speak plainly to be ridiculous. He speaks to a wider audience than to America and England and he doesn't want to be limited to the most basic language ("hush and who," understood by the oxen). He says he worries that his language may not be extravagant enough because his exaggerations (use of hyperbole) don't begin to express all he needs to say. He wants his language to jump the fence (do the unexpected) and to wake people up. He also said that the truth behind our words should always reveal the weakness of our language to express it.|
|Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring. Sometimes we are inclined to class those who are once-and-a-half-witted with the half-witted, because we appreciate only a third part of their wit. Some would find fault with the morning-red, if they ever got up early enough. "They pretend," as I hear, "that the verses of Kabir have four different senses; illusion, spirit, intellect, and the exoteric doctrine of the Vedas"; but in this part of the world it is considered a ground for complaint if a man's writings admit of more than one interpretation. While England endeavors to cure the potato-rot, will not any endeavor to cure the brain-rot, which prevails so much more widely and fatally?||
A constant message in Walden is the need to remain awake. People do not use their minds to keenly observe reality but depend on truisms (common sense) instead. |
Thoreau's metaphorical language has more than one level of meaning and more than one interpretation.
|I do not suppose that I have attained to obscurity, but I should be proud if no more fatal fault were found with my pages on this score than was found with the Walden ice. Southern customers objected to its blue color, which is the evidence of its purity, as if it were muddy, and preferred the Cambridge ice, which is white, but tastes of weeds. The purity men love is like the mists which envelop the earth, and not like the azure ether beyond.||Again, Thoreau compares himself to Walden. I think its ironic that Emerson, in his elegy, compared Thoreau to the Edelweisse, when I think Thoreau most wanted to be compared to his beloved pond.|
|Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.||The statement about the dog is from Ecclesiastes (9:4), but Thoreau has shifted the context and thus the meaning. I think this is an important Thoreauvian statement.|
|Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over ourselves, though when it is done we shall be sure to gaze still at the true ethereal heaven far above, as if the former were not?||One of Thoreau's most famous statements, which also suggests his much earlier statement that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." A Thoreauvian does not conform, does not join the march or the treadmill, and does not try to fool himself or herself with an imitation of the truth.|
|There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stock in all respects suitable the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times. But why do I stay to mention these things? When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?||Thoreau created this legend himself. It must have been hard for Thoreau in many ways, being seen by the villagers as an do-nothing, being patronized by Emerson, and having his books fail to sell. But Thoreau knew that the work he was doing was worthwhile, and so he continued to patiently write in his journals, revise his statements, and to labor to make Walden the very best book he could write. Thoreau did not live to see it, but Walden has become an influential book that has changed many lives.|
|No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well. For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infinity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out. In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is. Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe. Tom Hyde, the tinker, standing on the gallows, was asked if he had anything to say. "Tell the tailors," said he, "to remember to make a knot in their thread before they take the first stitch." His companion's prayer is forgotten.||In other words, we pretend to be something we are not, and doing so gets us into trouble. This is the same notion as the "shams and delusions" mentioned in "Where I Lived." General Semantics introduced the term "unsane" to refer to rationalized behavior which robs an individual of his effectiveness, the same idea that Thoreau is expressing here. The bald truth is always better than a pleasant-sounding lie.|
|However mean your life is, meet it 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 poor-house. 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 door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. The town's poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any. Maybe they are simply great enough to receive without misgiving. Most think that they are above being supported by the town; but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means, which should be more disreputable. Cultivate poverty 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. God will see that you do not want society. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me. The philosopher said: "From an army of three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take away his thought." Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all dissipation. Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights. The shadows of poverty and meanness gather around us, "and lo! creation widens to our view." We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same. Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.||
Thoreau was wealthy because he did not need money to make his life worthwhile. Here he argues that people make the best of whatever circumstances they find in life. The real hero is not the dashing young man of the movies but the person who can endure hardship, pain, and stress and yet still relish living in this world and grow from the experience.
Whether a person is wealthy or poor, the facts of life remain the same. Money can not add one day to your life, and it can actually rob you of worthwhile experiences.
Thoreau's statement, "Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all dissipation," may be difficult to understand. Young people want someone else to do something to them, to make some change in their lives. This is one reason why they join the army. Thoreau is saying that letting the world control your life is a mistake because it scatters and wastes your efforts. His alternative is for you to explore within yourself and to change your own life.
|I live in the angle of a leaden wall, into whose composition was poured a little alloy of bell-metal. Often, in the repose of my mid-day, there reaches my ears a confused tintinnabulum from without. It is the noise of my contemporaries. My neighbors tell me of their adventures with famous gentlemen and ladies, what notabilities they met at the dinner-table; but I am no more interested in such things than in the contents of the Daily Times. The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners chiefly; but a goose is a goose still, dress it as you will. They tell me of California and Texas, of England and the Indies, of the Hon. Mr.--- of Georgia or of Massachusetts, all transient and fleeting phenomena, till I am ready to leap from their court-yard like the Mameluke bey. I delight to come to my bearings, -- not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may, -- not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by. What are men celebrating? They are all on a committee of arrangements, and hourly expect a speech from somebody. God is only the president of the day, and Webster is his orator. I love to weigh, to settle, to gravitate toward that which most strongly and rightfully attracts me; -- not hang by the beam of the scale and try to weigh less, -- not suppose a case, but take the case that is; to travel the only path I can, and that on which no power can resist me. It affords me no satisfaction to commerce to spring an arch before I have got a solid foundation. Let us not play at kittly-benders. There is a solid bottom everywhere. We read that the traveller asked the boy if the swamp before him had a hard bottom. The boy replied that it had. But presently the traveller's horse sank in up to the girths, and he observed to the boy, "I thought you said that this bog had a hard bottom." "So it has," answered the latter, "but you have not got half way to it yet." So it is with the bogs and quicksands of society; but he is an old boy that knows it. Only what is thought, said, or done at a certain rare coincidence is good. I would not be one of those who will foolishly drive a nail into mere lath and plastering; such a deed would keep me awake nights. Give me a hammer, and let me feel for the furring. Do not depend on the putty. Drive a nail home and clinch it so faithfully that you can wake up in the night and think of your work with satisfaction, -- a work at which you would not be ashamed to invoke the Muse. So will help you God, and so only. Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying on the work.||
One reason Thoreau could not relate to the novels of his day might have been that they were novels of manners. When he says "a goose is a goose still," he is using the connotation of the word "goose," a foolish person. |
The Mameluke escaped a massacre by leaping to his horse and riding away.
Thoreau doesn't wish to keep up with the 19th century society because it anxiously is seeking the trivial, but he wants to walk with God instead.
Thoreau disliked Webster for having compromised against escaped slaves. "God is only the president of the day" implies that God is being treated as less than God; "Webster is his orator" suggests that God's spokeman is someone who is going to compromise with the truth.
"Kittybenders" was a game in which kids would dare each other to skate on thin ice. He doesn't want idle conversation based on nothing but wants to deal with reality instead.
"So will help you God and so only" means God will help you if you deal with reality and get to the truth, but only if you do so.
|Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as cold as the ices. I thought that there was no need of ice to freeze them. They talked to me of the age of the wine and the fame of the vintage; but I thought of an older, a newer, and purer wine, of a more glorious vintage, which they had not got, and could not buy. The style, the house and grounds and "entertainment" pass for nothing with me. I called on the king, but he made me wait in his hall, and conducted like a man incapacitated for hospitality. There was a man in my neighborhood who lived in a hollow tree. His manners were truly regal. I should have done better had I called on him.||Thoreau visits a home where there is expensive food, wine, and ice but just an attempt to make a good show, so he left "hungry," that is, unsatisfied. The wine they don't have, is of course, a metaphor, and this whole story is an extended metaphor or parable and not a literal account of trips to people's houses.|
|How long shall we sit in our porticoes practising idle and musty virtues, which any work would make impertinent? As if one were to begin the day with long-suffering, and hire a man to hoe his potatoes; and in the afternoon go forth to practise Christian meekness and charity with goodness aforethought! Consider the China pride and stagnant self-complacency of mankind. This generation inclines a little to congratulate itself on being the last of an illustrious line; and in Boston and London and Paris and Rome, thinking of its long descent, it speaks of its progress in art and science and literature with satisfaction. There are the Records of the Philosophical Societies, and the public Eulogies of Great Men! It is the good Adam contemplating his own virtue. "Yes, we have done great deeds, and sung divine songs, which shall never die." -- that is, as long as we can remember them. The learned societies and great men of Assyria, -- where are they? What youthful philosophers and experimentalists we are! There is not one of my readers who has yet lived a whole human life. These may be but the spring months in the life of the race. If we have had the seven-years' itch, we have not seen the seventeen-year locust yet in Concord. We are acquainted with a mere pellicle of the globe on which we live. Most have not delved six feet beneath the surface, nor leaped as many above it. We know not where we are. Beside, we are sound asleep nearly half our time. Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an established order on the surface. Truly, we are deep thinkers, we are ambitious spirits! As I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavoring to conceal itself from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble thoughts, and hide its head from me who might, perhaps, be its benefactor, and impart to its race some cheering information, I am reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over me the human insect.||
In Thoreau's day, virtues were taught which included "long-suffering," "Christian meekness," and "charity with goodness aforethought." Note that while practicing "long-suffering," a working man is hired to do the actual work.
China was so proud of its accomplishments that it allowed itself to go into a long decline. People in the Boston region were especially proud of their ancestors, and Thoreau thinks that people in general were too proud of previous accomplishments and unaware of earlier learned societies which have entirely vanished.
In saying that they have the seven-year's itch but have not seen the seventeen-year's locust, he is saying metaphorically that they have been here a very short time.
He suggests instead that they were barely familar with the surface of their planet and yet overrate their own accomplishments. He makes an implied comparison between them and insects crawling on the forest floor, suggesting that they are afraid to face God.
|There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only. It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable, and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind. Who knows what sort of seventeen-year locust will next come out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine.||Thoreau feels that people are living dull lives because they can't see the magic of the world around them. Although the religious songs mention real emotions, people sing them without feeling, without faith, and without hope of change. If a man wants to, a force within him can alter the entire British Empire (which extended around the world) just like the ocean tide can float a chip of wood. Gandhi -- a small, weak, insignificant man, by personal self-sacrifice and devotion to the truth, proved this to be true. The "seventeen-year locust" here is a harbinger of change.|
|The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats. It was not always dry land where we dwell. I see far inland the banks which the stream anciently washed, before science began to record its freshets. Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts, -- from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb, -- heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board, -- may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!||
Water is a symbol for inspiration, life, and change here. The "parched uplands" could be our need for inspiration, and the "muskrats" could be problems that need to be overcome. Note: these are symbols and have alternate interpretations. I find similarities here to T. S. Elliot's The Waste Land, as I did in "Spring." Elliot also saw a need for a spiritual awakening.
The bug which eats its way out of the table is, as Thoreau partially explains this time, a symbol for some truth which has been buried beneath our culture which will finally transform it.
|I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.||"John or Jonathan" is the Britsh and American public. "That morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn" is referring to some tremendous change which can happen only if we bring it about. A light (idea) brilliant enough to blind (stupify) is equivalent to darkness. We can only see new truths if we are awake to their significance. There are much greater truths about to be revealed. What we now see as the truth is just an indication of a much greater truth to come.|
|Comments | SECTIONS: | The New World | Writing | Thoreau | Home | Bike Pages ||
|WALDEN: | Economy I | Economy II | Economy III | Economy IV | Where I Lived | Reading | Sounds | Solitude ||
|WALDEN: | Visitors |The Bean-Field | The Village | The Ponds | Baker Farm | Higher Laws | Brute Neighbors ||
|WALDEN: | House Warming | Former Inhabitants | Winter Animals | The Pond in Winter | Spring | Conclusion ||