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 did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life – Henry David Thoreau
What if we could strip away distractions in life, and consider only that which is necessary to live? To undertake such a task in the middle of the 19th century would be incredibly challenging, but it was to this very task that Henry David Thoreau dedicated himself between 1845 and 1854. ‘Walden’ , or ‘A life in the woods’ is a beautifully written book set around a remarkably simple premise, and full of fascinating insights into life itself; asking us to consider what it is that we value.
If you’ve seen the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’, you’lll be familiar with arguably the most famous line from the book, but to only know about ‘sucking out all the marrow of life’ and not the rest of the book makes us poorer. Indeed, the very paragraph before in the book states this:
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.
As someone who spends a significant amount of time using technology, I love this statement. He exhorts us to concentrate on nature and how it’s rhythm helps us keep order. We’re very quick to look for something else to help us with such tasks!
Thoreau encourages us to keep our affairs small in number – again, a great challenge for us today with our technological distractions:
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.
Outside of those in religious orders, I don’t think I know anyone that does this. We seem to live such complex lives, but his challenge to us is to pare back and consider what it is that we seem concerned about that is important. His reason as to why we do not do this is striking:
I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface to things.
Brutal. Yet alarmingly true. All too often we don’t consider the depth of a subject, and go along with something because it’s easier to do so, or perhaps expected that we do.
Much of the book is rightly concerned with answering the question of being solitary, and whether we require society. Concerning property and posessions:
I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have more than is sufficient while others have not enough.
Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes of friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change.
Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.
On self discovery:
…be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.
Why did I read Walden? I read Susan Maushart’s ‘The Winter of our disconnect’, where she and her children undertook a similar exercise with technology. Throughout the book, she referred to Walden, and I felt there was a great gap in my reading, or indeed my understanding of how we approach material possessions or artifacts in life. Whilst the focus of the book centres around his experience in the woods and what it taught him about value and social interraction, the book was really written as a political treatise. Indeed, the final section of the book ‘On the duty of civil disobedience’ is a bold questioning of government. I have no real interest in this section of the book, as my interest was piqued by how we approach our attachment to materialism.
Would I recommend it? Yes, I would. Whilst some sections make for difficult reading, his turn of phrase at times is beautiful. To spend time considering such a fundamental question of what do we need in order to live a fulfilled life, we could do a lot worse than spending some time reading Thoreau – even if we too arrive at his conclusion:
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.
Image Credit: StarrGazr.