Simplify, Simplify: Walden and the Search for Meaning


I cannot think of any book that had taught me more, but simultaneously frustrated me, than Walden. After reading the first chapter alone, it was clear to me that Henry David Thoreau is highly misunderstood and taken for granted by those who read his work today.

My friends and relatives asked me repeatedly to remind them why I actively chose to read such a thing. People assumed that because it was old, it was boring; if it was about nature, it was hippie propaganda…and boring.

Refusing to believe that there was nobody else out there who enjoyed this, I checked the ever-useful to see what other people (people who actually enjoy reading) had to say. While I didn’t read every review, a few words stood out to me: “Smug”, “like bran flakes”, “could never be friends with him”, “phony”.

That last one got me. People felt Thoreau was insincere in his years at Walden because he simply wasn’t removed enough from society. He was but two miles from Concord center, and could even hear the train whistle in his quiet little cabin. He borrowed tools to build his home from his neighbors, frequently entertained visitors, and even strolled into town himself on occasion. And to some readers, this behavior was just too “social” and “dependant” for Thoreau to consider himself a “survivor” and adventureman. But to these skeptics I say just this:

Walden is not about surviving with nothing; it’s about thriving with less.

Thoreau’s retreat into the Concord woods was not an exercise in isolation, or abandonment of society. It was an escape from the fruitless labors and pointless excess of city life and an attempt to discover peace and simplicity in a rapidly evolving nation. While Thoreau certainly expresses love and reverence for the nature that surrounds him, his musings from Walden Pond pertain more to agriculture and economics more than the flowery, rough-and-tough image that most people have of him.

In the opening chapter, “Economy”, Thoreau explains his move to the woods through a financial, almost business-like, perspective. He views his neighbor’s constant toil to make a profit as futile, since no matter how hard they work neither their land nor their products are truly there. Every dime goes towards paying off the mortgage or some other loan, and this lack of ownership over one’s labor is (in the words of Karl Marx, not Thoreau) “alienating” and therefore lacks value beyond it’s basic price.

“The twelve labors of Hercules were triflings in comparison to those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men captured or slew any monster or finished any labor.”

It’s not like Thoreau went on vacation to the woods. He had a great deal of work to do, from building his own home to growing his own food. And while it was exhausting and often difficult, he sincerely felt that he got more personal benefit from his work than his neighbors did from theirs, despite the lack of help or companionship. He was quite dissatisfied with modern economics and the notion or working towards and invisible end. But while he opted out of conventional lifestyle, Thoreau’s distrust of modern society is perhaps strongest at the level of external appearance. He seems to be generally distrusting of people who desire material wealth and opulent or showy clothing.

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

He feels as if the internal material must be severely neglected if so much attention is to be placed on the outward appearance, and that such fanciful items are masks that prevent people but recognizing the utility and aesoteric beauty of the people and things wearing them. Fancy clothes in particular are simply another item which we never truly own, as they cost a lot of money but hide the true self. While we may financially possess the clothes, we do not possess ourselves.

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

Certainly this idea has many modern implications, and though Thoreau did not realize the extent that technology would reach in today’s world, he absolutely foresaw the effect it would have on our society.

“Our inventions are wont but pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.”

While Thoreau’s discussion of economics are perhaps the most instructive, he spends ample time in Walden discussing the spiritual benefits on a frugal and purposeful life. In my favorite chapter of the book, “Solitude”, he begins the feel lonely and questions whether or not a human neighborhood is actually necessary, and starts feelings insane. At the same moment, it begins to rain…and this simple response from nature to his worries washes all his doubts away.

“In the midst of the gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at ones like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.” (pp. 106)

This borderline mystical experience with nature reveals Thoreau’s true intention in retiring to the woods. Not to be alone, or reject society, but to appreciate and connect to something beyond fast trains and silk gowns and high profits.

I have a lot more to say about this book, but for now I want to leave you with this thought: Once start wanting more there is no limit to how much we will continue to want. In today’s world it is easy to get more and bigger and faster and richer. Value and meaning therefore comes when we decide to minimise…Or as Thoreau would say, “simplify, simplify”.

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