Thoreau on Self-Reliance

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

This is the third 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

Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond was an exercise in self-reliance, though not in the traditional sense. He built his cabin on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land and borrowed tools to do so. In as much as he was dependent upon others in the physical world, he was equally self-reliant in crafting his own personal philosophy.

His words echo Arthur Schopenhauer’s, believing man’s utmost responsibility is to himself and the cultivation of his own values.

“Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.”

The acceptance of the tribe ensured the survival of our ancestors, and we possess the same Darwinian need for social acceptance. Thoreau realized that this acceptance often comes at the sacrifice of one’s own individuality. Once we come to understand that the commonly prescribed mode of living is not optimal for ourselves, we are compelled to construct our own.

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

Out of respect for our own opinion, the opinions of others lose merit. This is the inherent value of learning to value intuition over intellect. The thinking mind is a powerful tool, but can easily become a labyrinth in which we spend our best faculties running circles, getting nowhere. But, intuition, that faint voice from our depths which calls out to us when the world quiets down, is the well-spring of our true values.

“If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies.”

In this hyper-connected age, we are constantly influenced by others. Social media gives us endless access to our peer group and their thoughts. Advertising on television, radio, and billboards all aim to give us beliefs which are not our own. We are constantly convinced of the importance of things which have little utility in our own lives.

There is an old saying, “If you don’t have a plan, you will become part of someone else’s.” If we are to live a fulfilling life, our heads must be filled with our own thoughts. This is the self-reliance which Thoreau practiced, living according to one’s own will, regardless of its relationship to generally prescribed practices.

“No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles.”

You may find great success in activities your culture deems worthwhile, but if they are not in accordance with your values, they will bring you no peace. To follow one’s genius is to listen to one’s intuition, and if we are not listening to our desires, we will quickly adopt someone else’s.

Joseph Campbell warned against climbing to the top of the ladder of professional success only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall. Ultimately, every wall but yours is the wrong one.

Climb wisely.

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

If you would like to be coached by Chris personally, click here.

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