Thoreau On Philosophy

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

This is the fourth post in a series of posts examining Henry David Thoreau’s seminal book Walden. To read the first post on simplicity, click here. To read the second post on personal development, click here. To read the third post on self-reliance, click here.

With our final theme in Thoreau’s Walden(public library), we will discuss what it means to be a philosopher, and soon find that being such has nothing to do with academia, authorship, and the extent of one’s schooling.

The term Philosophy stems from the Greek word Philosophia, translated as “love of wisdom.” As wisdom is not so much an abundance of knowledge but rather the proper application of it, we see that philosophy is practiced in the doing, in our day to day interactions with the world. We are all philosophers, it simply remains to be seen if our philosophy is sound.

Thoreau understood that philosophy is not be found simply in our thoughts, but in our actions, when he wrote:

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 great books of the past are not trophies to have read but tools to acquire. There is equal folly by the man who spends his days reading without apply what he has learned as the man who lives each day without contemplation. In order to have a relationship with our experience, we must be open and contemplative, inquiring beyond the level of surface trivialities.

Being a philosopher is not having answers, it is found in posing questions.

How can he remember well his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge?

The foundation upon which our philosophy is built must come from an admittance of our own ignorance. There is an old zen parable about a master and a student having tea, and the master continues to attempt to fill the students cup long after it is full, as the excess tea pours onto the table. The student is confused until the teacher tells him that he is like this cup, and if he is full, there is no room for his teaching.

We must empty our cups which remain largely filled with emotionally-based opinions rather than true knowledge grounded in logic.

My study of Epistemology (the study of knowledge) has helped me see just how little I actually know.

We still have not come to a widely accepted definition of knowledge, but thanks to Plato and Gettier we can say, more or less, that knowledge is justified true belief which is not based on false assumptions. Though sound, this simple definition could easily occupy four years of college-level study. If we are to empty our cup and make room for the wisdom with which we will live, we must illuminate our own ignorance to do so, which we can do at any moment.

It is never too late to give up our prejudices.

To be a philosopher is to direct our thoughts so as to live better lives because of them. Many of us assume that philosophy is reserved for geniuses teaching at Ivy League schools, who gather together to sit in a room and talk about “What is is?”, in a vocabulary that only they can understand. This is but one expression of philosophy, and is perhaps the least important.

For the rest of us, who have jobs, raise families, who see our friends on weekends and interact with strangers each day, it is our philosophy which shapes the world. We all have one, but is it a good one? The more time we spend in purposefully constructing our world view, understanding our values and the actions we believe to be just, the more capable we become of seeing beauty in ourselves, others, and the world.

On the final page of Walden, Thoreau writes:

Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn.

More indeed!

If you want to read Chris’s latest book on personal development, check it out here.

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