While I was assigned to read Henry David Thoreau in high school, and largely neglected that assignment, I was first re-introduced to the American Transcendentalist by the Tim Ferriss podcast. On his podcast, Tim Ferriss tries to deconstruct the habits, mentalities, and attitudes of world-class performers from any number of fields—chess, endurance sports, politics, business, etc.—and he tries to make their habits reproducible and usable to the common person. He does his best to teach his listeners how to live, and live positively, efficiently, and optimistically. So, it’s not a surprise that this podcast recommends its listeners to read Thoreau because, according to editor Denis Donoghue, “His private business was to discover how to live, what to do” (viii). This discovering how to live is also evident in a couple other works recommended by Tim Ferriss: Seneca’s essay “On the Shortness of Life” and Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha. Each of these concerns itself with the question of how not to just live, but to live well and at peace, to make everything one does efficient and productive—as Kipling said it, filling the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ long-distance run.
On July 4th of 1845 Thoreau moved out to the cabin he had begun to build earlier that spring on Walden Pond, not far from his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, and he stayed there September 6th of 1847. In 1846, during his residence at Walden, Thoreau was supposed to give a lecture about Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher and writer, but, once he started, some members of the audience became more interested in his self-reliant living than his thoughts on Carlyle. And while self-reliance constitutes a major aspect of his thought, having a broad scope of curiosities also helped Thoreau live a full life. Thoreau responded to a tenth anniversary Harvard questionnaire: “I am a Schoolmaster—a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster” (xvii).
In Hesse’s Siddhartha when the beautiful courtesan Kamala asks Siddhartha what his talents are, the ex-monk responds, “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.” The stillness and patience that these three “talents” espouse are perfectly consistent with what Thoreau elaborates upon in Walden, and serve as a reminder that there is an alternative to our fast-paced, instant-messaging society. Thoreau makes it clear from the beginning of Walden that the book would be an exploration of his self for, early on, he is clear that the I would constantly speak to us: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained.” An objective of the book was to exhibit his own thoughts and contemplations, perhaps writing them out was an avenue that helped process better those thoughts and the observations that so assiduously consumed his time—he spent about four hours a day walking and another four reading and writing (Donoghue ix).
This is totally consistent with what Seneca says and how “The only people really at leisure are those who take time for philosophy. They alone really live” (65). And by far the most common thing that Thoreau finds himself thinking about is Nature. To say that Thoreau had an affinity with observing Nature would be an understatement, he was more an amateur natural scientist. His observation sessions were not simply something he would do in passing whenever he got a few free minutes from the other obligations that kept him busy, but rather these observations constituted an intractable portion of his days that could not be tampered with, “There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands” (119). It is not uncommon for Thoreau to seemingly drop everything, bolt to his journal and scribble anything he could about the current situation of the nature surrounding him, “As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantity of wild pigeons, flying by two and three athwart my view, or perching restless on the white-pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air” (123).
The common perception that Thoreau went out to the Walden pond to live in isolation for a year is, in fact, a misconception. Every day or two he would leave the cabin and go into the nearby town of Concord, or else he would visit the Emerson’s whenever he needed company. To say that Thoreau’s overt intention was to live starkly in a minimalist fashion would also be incorrect—this wasn’t a conscious effort to box himself into another “-ist” lifestyle, but rather he found that living simply happened to be the most pleasurable without the need to force the lifestyle upon himself, “I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. […] Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour. Housework was a pleasant pastime” (121).
Thoreau’s example becomes more and more relevant and revealing to each passing generation. The simple street signs that solicited attention and marketing on Main St. of the town of Concord were enough to annoy him and force him to stick to the back roads when going through town. How appalled would he be with the gaudy attempts of marketing today with the extravagance of strip malls and highway billboards that contaminate the horizon—let’s not even get into the storm that is the internet, constantly bombarding us with stimuli. It is hard to find a pedestrian at my university that doesn’t either have their nose in their smartphone or earbuds inundating their senses with their favorite songs. Even the greatest admirers of Thoreau would be uncomfortable to be without their smartphone for long, me included, and yet he said, “Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries, but for want of luxuries” (65). And that was in the 1840s!
As our ears are full of music and our eyes glued to our phones, we have to question if we are getting lost in our own world and forgetting the one outside the technology. Thoreau also feared that technology would dull our senses—even though the “technology” of his time was the book, a seemingly out of vogue artifact today. He begins the chapter entitled “Sounds” like so: “But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard” (119). Thoreau exhorts us to take off our headphones and listen to the sounds around us, that common language we all share. His beautiful prose describes the screechy dialogue between the locomotive whistle and the hawk, the thunderous snort of a horse, the Sunday bells, the evening lowing of some cow in the distance, and the chanting whippoorwills. The counter argument would be that the only sounds available today are rubber on asphalt, but Thoreau easily debunks that by constantly looking past the sounds of the technology at his time, the locomotive, and finding Nature among the bustle of modernity. Constantly comparing and juxtaposing the sounds of modernity with those of Nature is what keeps him busy, keeps him thinking, and keeps him philosophizing.
Not allowing distractions and the un-Natural to antagonize him, Thoreau was not only an isolationist in the sense that he believed Nature to be admired and appreciated in its savage purity, but he was also isolationist when it came to politics. In 1846, he had an experience with a tax collector that would leave a mark on him. The collector approached him demanding six years of unpaid poll taxes and, in opposition to the Mexican-American War and the institution of slavery, he refused to pay, landing himself a night in jail because of it. He published Resistance to Civil Government, now known as Civil Disobedience, in 1849, in which he advocates not necessarily no government, but rather a better government—something that many are urging for in today’s political climate. This essay would influence later advocates of civil rights such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
A main complaint in Civil Disobedience is that so many men served as mindless functionaries of government, carrying out its orders without much thought or question. “Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?” And as Walden carries so much relevance to our twenty-first century society, Civil Disobedience can easily resound with our politics today in that, in the United States anyway, it seems like Republicans and Democrats follow party line votes without any show of critical, independent thinking at all—voters be damned.
Independence rings loudest of all in Thoreau’s writings: independence from the mundane bustle that our fast-paced, flashy culture offers; independence from the machines that rule our communication and stint our dialogue with Nature; and independence from the talking points that dominate the 24/7 cable news cycles. Simply put, Thoreau encourages us to live simply, consciously, and relentlessly.
Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. Ed. Robert A.F. Thurman. Trans. Rika Lesser. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2007.
Seneca. “On the Shortness of Life.” The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. Ed. Moses Hadas. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1958. 47-74.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Ed. Denis Donoghue. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper2/thoreau/civil.html