Updated: Oct 14, 2020
With our first series on Schopenhauer’s The Wisdom of Life complete, we now turn toward 19th century New England to learn from famed transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.
On July 4, 1845, in an exercise of ascetic living in pursuit of his highest self, Thoreau began a two year, two month, and two day adventure living in a self-built cabin on the edge of Walden pond, which led to his magnum opus, Walden; or, Life in the Woods(public library). The significance of his experiment was not recognized until long after his return and remains a siren song warning against the dangers of conformity at the sacrifice of one’s own soul.
Thoreau has been met with mixed reception. Lovers of nature praise his work as scripture, nonconformists as the consummate iconoclast, and the democratic damn him for his complete lack of social obligation.
In 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions” for Cornhill Magazine, both praising and criticizing Thoreau and his work. Stevenson denigrates him as an “idle, selfish, self-improver” and a “skulker” while praising him as “almost shockingly devoid of weakness…not touched with a feeling of our infirmities.” Ultimately, Stevenson summed up Thoreau’s relationship to his fellow man beautifully in saying:
“He was not so much difficult about his fellow human beings as he could not tolerate the terms of their association.”
Thoreau believed the mass of men were encumbered by a mode of living unworthy of the life we exchange for it, happily making the sacrifice of relationships to others in preservation of his relationship to himself. In the same essay, Stevenson acknowledges his motivations:
“Thoreau lived by a rigorous code of values, compelled to self-mastery and understanding above all else.”
I have read Walden more than any other book and it has shaped my philosophy in proportion. My life is richer and more meaningful because Thoreau went to the woods.
Each man gives what he has, in the way he is suited to give it. Thoreau was not built for a life of philanthropy. He was called to a life of quiet introspection. But, in so doing, he left behind an ode to personal development, imploring each of us to a life of self-actualization, away from conformity and toward themselves.
At the site of Thoreau’s cabin, there is a wooden sign with his now famous words:
“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…”
Thoreau went to the woods to hear those truths which go unheard in crowds of men. He transcribed his findings in Walden so that we may learn from his experiences and come to honor our own. For a man accused of a complete lack of concern for others, he has done a great service for all those willing to heed his words.
In our first post, we will learn what Thoreau had to teach about living simply to better understand life’s complexity.
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