Sunday, August 09, 2015

An American Classic

by Henry David Thoreau 

"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)

On this day in 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden; or, Life in the Woods. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson said he saw a "tremble of great expectation" in Thoreau just before publication day. Thoreau's previous book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), sold fewer than 300 copies. On the day he got his 706 unsold copies back from the publisher, he wrote in his diary: "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself ..." Walden didn't do much better.  Yet, a century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible. Of the American classics densely arisen in the middle of the 19th century - Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850), Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), and Emerson's Essays as an indispensable preparation of the ground - Walden has contributed most to America's present sense of itself.*

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 someone who worships Nature.

"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."

*"A Sage for all Seasons",  John Updike,  Guardian, June, 25, 2004.
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. Princeton University Press 2004 (1854).  


Brian Joseph said...

Insightful commentary on this very rich work James.

I have never considered Thoreau's dismissal of philanthropy before. I am thinking of nietzsche who seemed to not entirely reject charity but who was very critical of it.

James said...

Thanks for your kind words. This is a very rich work and I had several comments on the book when I last read it several years ago. Thoreau is one of the thinkers that I return to from time to time.