Walden and the Meaning of Life

In this essay I will address the question of what Henry David Thoreau`s Walden describes as the main causes of people’s failure to live meaningful lives. Thoreau pursues some main issues in Walden and I will look at these in the relation to my question above. In my discussion of the subject I will use extracts and quotes from the most vital parts of Walden. Thoreau`s main issues are concerned with closeness to nature, or the distance to it, horizons and perspectives, simplicity, unity and wisdom. Within these issues I will examine the main issues that Thoreau points to in his discourse in Walden and which he thinks are the main causes of people’s unhappiness and failure to live meaningful lives.

«Most men, even this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factious cares and superfluous coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.» (Walden, Chapter 1, Economy, 1770)

In one of the most important chapters of Walden Thoreau points to many people’s ignorance in living their lives. Here Thoreau introduces nature as an important factor in people’s lives. According to Thoreau a man needs to remain close to nature in order to live a meaningful life. Man’s ignorance leads to an unfavorable distance to nature and everything related to it. Human ignorance and alienation from nature leads to resignation and desperation because we are removed from our initial roots. «The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is conformed desperation» (Walden, Chapter 1, Economy, 1771). As we fail to acknowledge our bonds to nature and our beneficial relationship to it we inevitably fall into a «conformed desperation». Thoreau writes warmly about the charitable closeness with nature he enjoys when he has moved to Walden Pond. «I found thus that I had been a rich man without any damage to my poverty. But I retained the landscape, and I since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow» (Walden, Chapter 2, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, 1811). Thoreau once again returns to the issue of

closeness to nature in Chapter 2. The value of the landscape is at its most valuable to the one that really sees the land as it is, and not in the capitalist profitable sense.

Thoreau quotes a line from Hindu mythology in Chapter 2 that leads me to a very essential issue in Walden. «There are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon» (Walden, Chapter 2, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, 1814). Thoreau stresses the importance of horizons and perspectives and how they should be essential for people in their lives. For him, as he has withdrawn from the city and into the woods, he notes that; «I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe» (Walden, Chapter 2, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, 1814). In society there exist so many distractions that it is difficult to find a meaningful way to live. This is the reason why Thoreau has withdrawn into the woods to Walden Pond in order to find calm and peace so that he can reflect on life. Again nature plays a fundamental part in Thoreau`s philosophy. By acknowledging your bond to nature and nurture your relationship to nature you will easier find a perspective of meaning in how to live your life. Thoreau himself finds the post-office, the media and the railroad as examples of the modern age that are given too much importance. He realizes their importance to a certain extent, but warns of the danger of the modern age to take fully control over our lives. «We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us» (Walden, Chapter 2, Where I lived, and What I lived For, 1817), comments Thoreau on the railroad and the human sacrifices that it has taken. In his first chapter he does also remind the reader of the illusion of progress: «As with our colleges, so with a hundred «modern improvements»; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance» (Walden, Chapter 1, Economy, 1795). This illusion could lead to distraction and a loss of focus. In essence perspectives, or the lack of any, are one of the main causes people find living unrewarding and unsettling. The existence of distorted perspectives and false needs as a society often can encourage distracts people and alienate them from nature, a place where Thoreau himself finds

meaning. «Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself» (Walden, Chapter 2, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, 1814), he writes of his experiences at Walden Pond. This brings me to two other important issues in Thoreau`s philosophical narrative.

Living a life of distractions often leads to frustration and desperation. People feel they do not have time to do all their chores and business they have set forth to do. «Our life is frittered away by detail» (Walden, Chapter 2, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, 1816), declares Thoreau on living a busy life. «Simplify, simplify» (Walden, Chapter 2, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, 1816) is his solution to the problem. He remarks that all improvements are not necessary beneficial to us, they can often be more of a distraction to us. Thoreau criticizes his contemporary time of being «external and superficial» (Walden, Chapter 2, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, 1816) and full of useless distractions. Simplicity is of great importance to Thoreau. One of the main causes why people fail to live a meaningful life is that they complicate it. «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» (Walden, Chapter 18, Conclusion, 1937) encourages Thoreau and once again emphasizes the importance of simplicity. Simplicity is related to nature and the roots of man. «The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature» (Walden, Chapter 2, Economy, 1787), comments Thoreau on man’s roots to nature. By simplifying our lives we will come closer to the truth and life will become more meaningful to us as we ourselves are part of nature. Unity is equally of great importance as simplicity. People can easily fall into the habit of disconnecting themselves from nature and hence themselves. If man acknowledged the bond to nature he

would also feel closer to himself and everything around him, including other people too. Thoreau notes on his experience at Walden Pond that: «It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more etheral life» (Walden, Chapter 1, Economy, 1789). Thoreau`s observations of nature makes him realize his bond to nature and gives him energy and perspectives in his life. Unity with nature is a delight to Thoreau. He criticizes society of being too false, or as he writes: «Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other» (Walden, Chapter 5, Solitude, 1840). Nature provides answers that society cannot provide. Thus is unity with nature of great importance. At his Walden Pond he loves to stroll about in his herb garden and feel close to nature and as he writes: «An elderly dame, too, dwells in my neighborhood, invisible to most persons, in whose oderous herb garden I love to stroll sometimes, gathering simples and listening to her fables; for she has a genius of unequaled fertility, and her memory runs back farther than mythology, and she can tell me the original of every fable, and on what fact every one is founded, for the incidents occurred when she was young» (Walden, Chapter 5, Solitude, 1841) If one remain close to nature and nurture an unity with it through simple living one would accumulate perspectives of life that would not be possible if one indulge in a life removed from nature. Thoreau gives the example of childhood as the ideal. «I have always been regretting that I was not wise as the day I was born» (Walden, Chapter 2, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, 1820). To Thoreau his perspectives and understanding of life and its mystery will never be clearer than when he was a child because, as he writes: «Children, who play life, discerns its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily, but who think that they are wiser by experience, that is, by failure» (Walden, Chapter 2, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, 1819).

Ultimately my answer to the question I initially posted would be the importance of nature, and the closeness to it which provides a closer understanding of life and brings meaning into people’s life. Thoreau lists the main causes of people’s failure to live meaningful lives as being in relating to nature as it is a part of ourselves. To Thoreau society is full of distractions and they alienate us from the truth: «Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth» (Walden, Chapter 18, Conclusion, 1941). The truth can only be found in nature, everything else is distractions. At the end of Walden Thoreau reminds us of that: «The universe is wider than our views of it» (Walden, Chapter 18, Conclusion, 1935). People’s failure to live a meaningful life lies in the fact that we live our lives too fast and forget to reflect on nature and the universe. We simply forget to live. By simplifying our lives and live in unity with nature we will attain wisdom and understanding through wider perspectives - only then can we live a life of meaning.

Works cited: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods, 1854, in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, fifth ed., vol. 1, gen. ed. Nina Baym, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998

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