Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity

Despite the title of this chapter,"Where I Lived, and What I Lived for", where he lived seems less important to Thoreau than what he lived for if we are to believe this essay. As long as you live fully, wherever you live is an ideal place. The key is to simplify your life to the point that you can live freely and find the inner truth that is reflected in eternity itself.

It has always struck me that Thoreau essentially chose a “monastic” life when he retired to Walden Pond. For a Transcendentalist, what better place for a cloister than Walden Pond? Living at Walden Pond while immersed in nature freed Thoreau from the daily cares that distract all of us from the deeper life that resides within us.

We all imagine there is a special place where we can find true happiness:

We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia's Chair, far from noise and disturbance. I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe

I may well be that some places facilitate our conversation with the universe. Personally I find a mountain wilderness the ideal place because there are no distractions. However, since that universe lies within us, all that is truly required is a quiet place to think. For Thoreau, the quiet of Walden Pond was such a place:

Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.

Thoreau spends considerable time talking about rising early to confront the day, to awaken to the wonder that awaits those who are willing and able to see what is there. Being a late riser who does his deepest thinking in the wee hours, I prefer to believe that he is talking about a “religious” awakening:

It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering?

Thoreau rightly points out that most of us spend much of our time sleep-walking through life. We know he’s right because when we hear the accusation we immediately know it is true. Luckily, this accusation also serves as a wake-up call:

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

What would it take to awaken us?

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. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.

We are all capable of elevating our life if we consciously try, but until we make that conscious effort we will continue to sleep walk through life.

The clearest statement of Thoreau’s purpose for going to the woods is:

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, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

In this sense, Thoreau’s retreat was not a religious escape from life to enhance his spiritual life, but, instead, an attempt to confront life directly. The essence of this Spartan approach to life is simplicity:

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.

What could be simpler. Sounds like the same advice given by the great religions of the world. Unfortunately, it obviously isn’t as easy as it sounds, as most of us already know if we’ve tried to free ourselves from our possessions. Perhaps the greatest irony of America, the land of liberty, is that it also the land of capitalism, and the hardest thing in life is to free yourself from the constant desire to have things.

Unless we simplify, we are forced to rush to do all the things that we feel need to be done. According to Thoreau, we drive ourselves crazy:

Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.

It sounds to me like Thoreau is confronting that great American pragmatic philosopher, Ben Franklin, who seemed to offer very different advice.

It certainly seems that Thoreau would agree with Jonathon Delacour’s argument that bloggers should not desire to be called journalists:

To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip.

I have no idea what passed for “news” in Thoreau’s day, but it could hardly be worse than what we call news, particularly television news. Instead of providing us with the knowledge we need to make vital decisions, it attempts to entertain us.

Thoreau argues that if we really paid attention to what is “true” in life that we would be exhilarated:

Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights' Entertainments. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime.

While the “news” may well outrage us, poetry provides the kind of wisdom that makes real change possible. Certainly it requires far greater wisdom to solve the complex problems that face us than the newspapers with their insistence on the sensational will ever provide us with.

Men seek far and wide for the truth, thinking that they can find it “out there,” but according to Thoreau the truth is always at hand:

Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us. The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us. Let us spend our lives in conceiving then.

To me, the most interesting phrase here is “The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions,” suggesting that we somehow shape our own universe. Or, is it simply that if we conceive of the universe rightly that it will confirm our conception?

If we contemplate time correctly, we can see forever:

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.

Walden Pond is yet another body of water that offers a chance to gain new insights into eternity.

“Where I Lived, and What I Lived for”

Lest readers get the impression that Thoreau was something of a hermit, living by himself in a cabin a few miles from town, consider the first page of Chapter two wherein he revealed “I dearly love to talk,” as he hiked about the country, acting something like a real estate agent, connecting buyers with sellers of farms.

On one of his walks, Thoreau found a farm he especially liked--the Hollowell farm which he nearly purchased until Mrs. Hollowell decided not to sell.

Every man has such a wife--changed her mind and wished to keep it, and he offered me ten dollars to release him.

Thoreau graciously refused the money, releasing Mr. Hollowell from the sale.

But the attraction of the farm remained for him.

The real attractions of the Hollowell farm, to me, were: its complete retirement, being about two miles from the village, half a mile from the nearest neighbor, and separated from the highway by a broad field; its bounding on the river, which the owner said protected it by its fogs from frosts in the spring;... I was in haste to buy it...and do all those things which had no other motive or excuse but that I might pay for it and be unmolested in my possession of it.

Preservation of the farm was uppermost in Thoreau’s mind, not the development of the acreage. His plan was to “As long as possible live free and uncommitted. In fact failing to purchase the farm led him to comment

I think I shall not buy greedily, but go round and round it as long as I live, and be buried in it first, that it may please me the more at last.

Escaping the ownership of the farm, Thoreau agreed to live on Emerson’s newly purchased land located away from the village among the natural setting of the pond and the woods surrounding it. He especially liked the song birds that inhabited the spot.

The Harivansa says, ‘An abode without birds is like a meat without seasoning.’

He felt he had “caged” himself near them as he sat within the doorway of his cabin, listening to their songs.

Life on Walden Pond sounds idyllic to me.

Every morning was a cheerful invitation to made my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with nature herself...I got up early and bathed in the pond...’Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.’

Morning brings back the heroic ages. I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame.

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour...After a partial cessation of his sensuous life, the soul of man, or its organs rather, are reinvigorated each day, and his Genius tries again what noble life it can make.

The influence of Eastern philosophy is apparent as Thoreau quoted the Vedas:

‘All intelligences awake with the morning.’

Thoreau recognized the difficulty for those of us who are not morning persons.

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. [Be awake and alive] an infinite expectation of the dawn.

Man’s ability to adapt to his situation is a recurring theme for Thoreau.

I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor...it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

Once more in this chapter Thoreau states a purpose for his sojourn to the banks of Walden Pond.

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...to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life...to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

Simplicity is another recurring theme.

Out life is frittered away by detail...Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity...keep your accounts on your thumb nail.

The act of keeping things simple should also extend to government. Thoreau recognized his philosophy was in conflict with progress.

But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads?...Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?

Thoreau would answer if we stay at home and minded our own business, we wouldn’t want railroads.Answer to question number two would be we shouldn’t.

The post-office and newspapers were next on Thoreau’s list of “unnecessaries.’

I could easily do without the post-office...To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life...that were worth the postage...And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.

Here is the point:

When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,--
and petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature...determined to make a day of it.

To find the reality in life remains the goal.

Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business...time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.

The chapter ends with the confession that Thoreau meant to spend as little time as possible laboring.

I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it.

Freeing time to think, to read, to write, then, became the basis for Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond.

Diane McCormick

2 thoughts on “Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity

  1. This site helped me so much to understand my reading on Thoreau! It clears any confusion, goes in the order of the passage, and explains after each certain passages.

    Thanks Diane McCormick

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