This pandemic has allowed me to review my home library. A few weeks ago, I rediscovered an old battered paperback copy of Walden. This time, instead of speed reading out of sense of duty, I have been taking my time and listening to what he says. Turns out to be somewhat different than the memories and mythology I had about a young man who rejected everything to live humbly in the woods.
Thoreau was, of course, well educated, and the events related took place in a sedate and settled community, not in raw wilderness. Finally, I realize he did not so much reject the consensus of his civilization as stand a bit outside of it _ for a while_ to see how it related to what he wanted to do with his life. All of us have been there, but many of us fail to act on our meditations. He did so, but only for a while, and only moderately, and with an eye to writing about it.
What I had missed in an earlier rushed read, was that he was not really advising anybody to do anything different. Walden is not a polemic against civilization. Thoreau appreciates a lot of modern comforts. He is not against using iron nails, precut boards, shirts, or even occasional meals from friends. He simply wonders how much he really needs to be happy, and what he should be willing to pay for it in hours of his short time on the planet. But he constantly reminds himself, and us, that he hardly believes that his conclusions have much if any relevance to anyone else’s life.
That is a standard problem. Almost all of us work out our own approach to life in a more or less satisfactory manner. We think we have done about what we could have and should have. As we grow older, most of us become more proud of our life accomplishments, and more content in the paths we have taken. But then, rather than stop there, we try to tell others that such is what they should also do, or should have done, or compare their (poor) choices and actions to our (correct) legacy. Even if we end up bitterly hating our lives, we try to tell everyone else how to avoid our mistakes, or at least how to fight those who we think made our life a disaster.
Thoreau brazenly states that he has never met a sixty year old who had anything of value to tell him at thirty. More uncommonly, as he discovers his inner peace, he makes no pretense that his conclusions will apply to you or me. He just lays them out and challenges us to challenge ourselves in a similar manner. Compared to fanatic diatribes of current philosophers, that is a refreshing approach.
Contemplation of the right way to live automatically drifts to definitions of utopia. How do I live the best life for me, how does society provide the best life for everyone? Thoreau is the proper starting point, not with solutions glibly offered but with profound questions. More interestingly, in these times when everyone is admonished to “be all that you can be,” he questions just how much “all” in socially defined terms is really important.