Friday, June 22, 2012

Philosophy and Nature

Notes on Walden, I
"being well as Nature"

"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 theoretically, but practically." (pp 14-15)

Henry David Thoreau begins Walden with an explanation, this was a brief respite from his "civilized life" that had taken up two years at some time in the past.  Now he is once again a "sojourner in civilized life."  Using the word sojourner suggests the association of material things with civilization.  It also provides a contrast with the natural life that he had experienced at Walden Pond.  But the presence of nature does not prevent Thoreau from quickly turning his narrative to a discourse on his personal life and internal thoughts leading to the comment about philosophers quoted above.  His life at Walden Pond appeared to provide simplicity and independence, two of the criteria listed, but the emphasis in "Economy"--the first chapter of Walden--is on the practical aspects of the life of the philosopher.
These aspects are laid out in an orderly manner that begins with several pages about the "when", "what", and "how" of his life at Walden Pond.  His simple life was one that included only the "necessities", noting that , "the wisest have ever led a more simple and meager life that the poor.  The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward." (p 14)
While what he did, in addition to writing, included:  "To anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself!" . . . "trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express!"(p 17)
His paean to nature passes and he continues an orderly disquisition on building his house, its design, his income and outgo, and baking bread.  He describes making his furniture, once again with emphasis on simplicity:  "a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs".  Later, in the "Visitors" chapter, he will explain that his three chairs include "one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society." (p 140)  Multiple visitors were invited to stand while they shared Thoreau's abode.
The "Economy" section is by far the longest in the book and, while Thoreau discusses many more details of his life at the pond, he concludes with a meditation on philanthropy which he decides "that it does not agree with my constitution."  The dismissal of philanthropy, at least for himself, seems curious for one who portrays himself as a philosopher.  Philanthropy originates from the Latin "philanthropia", and originally from the Greek word "philanthropia", meaning "humanity, benevolence," from philanthropos (adj.) "loving mankind, useful to man," from phil- "loving" + anthropos "mankind".  But perhaps Thoreau did not perceive the practice of philanthropy in Concord to coincide with this derivation.  As he says "There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted." (p 74)  He goes on to discuss the issue at length with a concluding and consistent (with his thought) riposte that seems apropos for the end of this first note on Walden.
"If, then, we would indeed restore mankind by truly Indian, botanic, magnetic, or natural means, let us first be as simple and well as nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores.  Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world."( pp 78-79)
This then seems to bring together the simplicity and practice of the philosopher to be "well as nature ourselves."

Walden by Henry D. Thoreau. Introduction by John Updike, Princeton University Press, 2004 (1854)

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