Walden, The Conclusion

The Cosmos in a Drop of Pond Water

As I finished reading Walden, I asked myself in my best school teacher voice, “So, Diane, what did you learn from reading Walden?”

Thoreau had spent two years at Walden Pond, living alone in a cabin, recording his observations which were much more profound than the ice on the pond or the robins of spring.

Thoreau’s philosophy emphasized and completed the thinking of a most interesting man, one certainly who would be welcome at any dinner table in any century.

Certainly Nature was his teacher and in the last chapter Thoreau passes along the lessons he learned, using the imperative for emphasis.

This is what I learned.

Lesson One--Forget seeking knowledge from other people and places. Explore thyself.

Lesson Two-- Dare to dream, follow your own path.

Lesson Three--Seek the truth.

Lesson Four--Live your life, no matter how meager it is.

Lesson Five--Live a simple and humble life.

Lesson Six--Understand we cannot know the future nor should we praise ourselves too much for our accomplishments in the past. The present is all we can know. This goes for nations as well as individuals.

Lesson Seven--Life’s lessons and smart people’s advice can be accepted only when we are ready to receive them.


Lesson One--Forget seeking knowledge from other people and places. Explore thyself.

Upon the recommendation of doctors the sick are often advised to seek a change in their surroundings to effect better health.

Thoreau would argue that enlightenment is closer at hand, indeed is within walking distance if one would only recognize the worth of his home place. It is not necessary or even helpful to seek understanding in locations outside the self. The knowledge one seeks can be found within.

Yet we should oftener look over the tarrerel of our craft, like curious passengers, and not make the voyage like stupid sailors picking oakum. The other side of the globe is but the home of our correspondent. Our voyage is only great circle-sailing, and the doctors prescribe for diseases of the skin merely.

How many millions of dollars are spent in psychotherapy to learn about the self? Foolish reliance on others to help us permits little progress. In the end we are the ones who must create change. If only we were strong enough to heed Thoreau’s suggestion that we are all capable of exploring our own “streams and oceans.”

Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes,--with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty can sky-high for a sign. Were preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely? Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthy empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.

One’s own country can lead her away from exploring the self. The individual, not the group or nationality, is the most important. We need to understand and respect ourselves before we support our nation’s causes in the name of patriotism which may be damaging to others. For example, bombing Afghanistan to protect America is not the reasonable action of self-respecting individuals.

Here is a line so apropos for this Fourth of July. Instead of the cheap American flag flying from the windows of the SUVs, I’d like to see the last line of this quotation on a bumper sticker.

Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads.

I have traveled my share of the world, ostensibly learning about other cultures and climes so Thoreau’s remonstrance to “Explore thyself” instead has a great impact on me.

If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve. Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist. Start now on the farthest western way, which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific, nor conduct toward a worn-out China or Japan, but leads on direct a tangent to this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sun down, moon down, and at last earth down too.

Exploring his own condition, then, Thoreau knew when his experiment should end, and without any sense of defeat, he returned to the village. The lesson had been learned.

Lesson Two-- Dare to dream; follow your own path.

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.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advanced confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavored to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws by expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the licenser of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; this is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Why level down ward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense.

Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose?A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Each of us has our own sense of what we need to accomplish. If we create one thing to our satisfaction in our lifetime that is sufficient . Thoreau recalls a story of a man from Kouroo who chose to make the perfect staff even if took his entire life to do so.

Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.

Lesson Three--Seek the truth

No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well...Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

Love, fortune, and fame not based on truth will provide little comfort. Just ask Robert Blake, Ken Lay, and OJ Simpson.

Lesson Four--Live your life, no matter how meager it is.

The true sources of happiness are available to everyone, regardless of wealth. We all have access to the warmth of the sun, the love of family, lasting friendship.

However meager your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The faultfinder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.

Lesson Five--Live a simple and humble life.

Living simply was the most fundamental tenet of Thoreau’s thinking. Life ‘near the bone” would free us to take delight in nature, be creative, develop talents most important to us. If we would reduce the acquisition of superfluous goods we then have to take care of, think how much more time we would have to spend doing the things that count. Of course, even Thoreau would advocate providing for basic necessities such as food, warmth, health, and literacy.

Cultivate poverty like a gardener, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. ..the philosopher said: ‘From the army of three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take away his thought.’

Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all dissipation. Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights.

It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.

This leads me to my latest rant about the wealthy’s handling of their “disposable income.” Chicago millionaire Steve Fossett has just spent millions of dollars to complete successfully his sixth attempt to circumnavigate the earth in a hot air balloon named “Spirit of Freedom.” How much freedom from hunger, disease, and illiteracy would those millions have provided for the impoverished? How many millions will rock stars pay to fly in the Russian Mir Space Station? Why can’t these people get a clue? Spending money on such selfish foolishness is obscene.

I delight to come to my bearings;--not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the Universe, if I may,--not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.

If Thoreau found the Nineteenth Century trivial...

Lesson Six--Understand we cannot know the future nor should we praise ourselves too much for our accomplishments in the past. The present is all we can know. This goes for nations as well as individuals.

We see ourselves as the end of a glorious progression of learned men, invention and discovery only because we are so very short sighted and egomaniacal.

We know not where we are. Besides, we are sound asleep nearly half our time. Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an established order on the surface. Truly, we are deep thinkers, we are ambitious spirits! As I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavoring to conceal itself from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble thoughts and hide its head from me who might, perhaps, be its benefactor and impart to its race some cheering information, I am reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over the human insect.

We know only the present during which we must trust in the beneficence of God.

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only. It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable, and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind. Who knows what sort of seventeen-year locust will next come out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine

The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.

Lesson Seven--Life’s lessons and smart people’s advice can be accepted only when we are ready to receive them.

These lessons can be learned only when we are ready to recognize their value. Most of us, being human, have to work through some mistaken thinking to get to the good stuff. Perhaps that is why the wisdom of Walden is so often wasted on the young.

I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis May 6, 1862. He was 44 years old.

Diane McCormick

What do you think?