“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

[Posted to commemorate the 192nd anniversary of Thoreau’s birthday]

A Thought-Provoking And Sobering Essay on Life

In this book, Thoreau reflected on the necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter and fuel), while he experimented with building his own shelter in the woods and growing crops himself. He pitied the lives of working men, “buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs”, expressed a strong desire for adventure, a higher, intellectual even spiritual life and yet at the same time could not but realize the impurities and weaknesses of men, including himself.

To Live Deliberately

“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 enjoy reading Thoreau’s adventures in the woods and fascinating observations of the wild animals and natural phenomena (the battle of the ants, the “hide-and-seek” game with a loon, etc), though I suspect that he didn’t learn anything more substantial about the essence of life in the woods than what he had already known before through the study of mythology and poetry, because if he had, he wouldn’t have returned to be  “a sojourner in civilized life”.

Nevertheless, life in the woods afforded him the unique opportunity to cultivate the field of his intellectual/spiritual endeavors and harness fruits in abundance. His comments on economy, architecture, education, philanthropy and various other aspects of life are poignant and incisive.

On Architecture

“What of architectural beauty I now see, I know has gradually grown from within outward, out of the necessities and character of the indweller, who is the only builder–out of some unconscious truthfulness, and nobleness, without ever a thought for the appearance and whatever additional beauty of this kind is destined to be produced will be preceded by a like unconscious beauty of life.”

“There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? … Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?”

On Education

“How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? … Even the poor student studies and is taught only political economy, while that economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy is not even sincerely professed in our colleges. The consequence is, that while he is reading Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say, he runs his father in debt irretrievably.”

On Philanthropy

“I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse. His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins.”

On Being Awake

“Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. … The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.”

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.

On A Living Earth

“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.”

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