Henry David Thoreau - Walden
My shorter-term plan is to cover all the topics mentioned in the introductory post at least superficially, but for now we have focused pretty much exclusively on the mind. I could say that the blog is quite literally top-heavy! So, starting with this mini-jubilee – my 10th post already! – I’m going to turn a little more towards the physical world for a while, where we can begin dissecting our bodies and our environment.
Particularly close to my heart is the minimalist life philosophy, so I’ve chosen to focus on that for this week within the material world. And as Marcus Aurelius says, “go straight to the seat of intelligence”. So I’ll start my exploration with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, considered by many to be the main classic of minimalism.
Thoreau was an American writer and philosopher who had a rather low opinion of the consumer society developing among his contemporaries; instead, he advocated for a life close to nature, minimalistic and independent. And before you think he was all talk: to illustrate his principles, he simply took to the woods and moved into a self-built cabin in the mid-1800s. In his book, he shares with the public his reasoning, his experiences, and his conclusions that led him to this point.
The beginning of the book is packed with witty insights and quotable soundbites. And by the end, he pulls the threads together neatly so that the main lessons can be absorbed more easily. But the middle is a bit… how shall I put it… boring as shit? Sure, there are a few gems in there – which I’ve dug out, of course – but the bulk of it is detailed descriptions of landscapes, animals and plants. We move nicely around the seasons changing from one to the next; experiencing colors, sounds, smells… I would pass these over for lack of space (and interest). If you want something like this, read the original; or better yet, go outside!
But for those who stay, be prepared for a convincing argument for minimalist living, mixed with a healthy dose of social criticism!
This is the part where he practically roasts people for living incorrectly – mainly because of their own delusions. They over-extend themselves, chasing money until they are sick, so that they have money saved for when they are sick. They’re resigned to “this is just the way it is”, accept the default settings and suffer in silence. This wouldn’t matter one bit if only others thought they suffered, but no, it’s their own opinion about themselves, too – and that’s a problem.
The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end.
It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
The elderly try to share their “wisdom” about the great things in life, but if they aren’t happy themselves, then what exactly is their qualification for doing so? Just because they’ve been living like crap for longer doesn’t give them a platform. All ages like to think they have exhausted the possibilities of human existence, but so far none of them have succeeded… So let’s just try to find a better balance!
To do this, we should first know what is really, strictly necessary. Because we can only contemplate higher meaning if we are not always busy chasing things that are not necessary. Thoreau’s first approximation is a list four: food, shelter, fuel and clothing. And while they do cover the necessities, on closer inspection even these can be grouped under a single label: warmth. The essence of our physical needs is simply to maintain the warmth of life. To do this, we need food on the inside (and perhaps the fire to cook it), plus shelter, fire, and clothing on the outside. And then we can legitimately ask: if all we need is to stay warm, what’s all the big fuss about?
Most luxury and comfort can only get in the way of what’s really important. The majority of the “mental greats” were intentionally poor on the outside for a reason. But nowadays, unfortunately, there are no philosophers anymore, only maybe philosophy professors. True philosophers would realize that we should not only know, but also do – solve the problems of human life practically, not just theoretically.
We do not, of course, criticize people who are rich on top of not being poor in spirit. Or who are content with their lot and just mind their own business. The problem is with the (most populous) class who are constantly complaining about how bad it is for them – yet they are “doing their duty” anyway! Or the ones who are only rich because they’re busy forging their own golden chain themselves!
Our hero, by contrast, is on a completely different path. He has always loved and walked in nature, watched the paths, the plants; been a forest ranger to some extent. Of course, no one was interested in this or recognized this as “work” – especially financially. But the lack of recognition did not lead to the realization that he should do something else or learn to sell himself better! Instead, it led to a realization of how to avoid the need to sell at all. Living on less, more simply!
So he decided to take it upon himself to move out into the forest. With a single, stiff, ordinary set of clothes on his back, which he of course patched rather than changed. And there’s wood in the woods anyway, as the name might suggest. So all he really needed, apart from some food, was shelter. Some people can get by without it, even in colder climates (in a sleeping bag, for example) – and in warmer climates it’s unnecessary. But it does help to get through winter and rainy weather. So he set to work with his own two hands (and some borrowed tools).
Here too, however, we must think strictly in terms of necessities! The few square feet offered by a railroad tool shed might do the trick; a few dollars, and then no more rent. The tents of the natives also prove that it can be done naturally. The “savage” owns his “house” because it is so cheap and easy to do so. Meanwhile, the “civilized” man can mostly just rent his, and often couldn’t even afford that much if he did the math.
Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.
The author, for example, could hardly name 3 out of 100 people in his village who didn’t have a loan on their farm. And those 3 might have just “sold their souls” in a different way. He also describes a settler culture where they just dug their houses into the ground at the beginning because the crops were suddenly more important that year. And sure, from this we can see that if there is something more important, then we can get by with much simpler dwellings. But don’t we think that there is something more important anyway? Our peace of mind, our higher-minded human goals, our “enlightenment” are always floating around, being neglected… We just don’t appreciate in context what huge (and unnecessary) burden we are taking on – and what we are missing out on because of it.
I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.
There was a lot of apparent progress even back then, but where to? If we’re not going in the right direction, it doesn’t really help that we’re getting there faster now. And anyway, if you factor in the fare, then speed advantage isn’t a certainty anymore, either. While others are working for the price of their tickets, we could just as easily walk there. In general, Thoreau considers this whole “I work now so I can live the way I want afterwards” thing weird. If you want to be a poet, then be a poet! And since it’s partly for such considerations that this blog is being written already, you could say I tend to agree.
Thoreau worked just enough to meet his needs. And this could be done very quickly because of his minimal needs, so there was time left for what was actually important. How much better it could be if we wanted intellectual development as a legacy rather than luxury…
Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon.
Given the above statements, abstract thinking is not enough, so we’ll get right into the nitty-gritty. For example, there is a concrete account of how much he lived on. The numbers themselves don’t tell the uninitiated eye much – at least, not without substantial historic and economic context, which I admittedly have very little of. But if we believe the author, it’s very little. And I’m inclined to believe, because it’s just basic groceries, plus what he himself produces. Add this food to his house, clothes, and forest-supplied fire, and we’re done.
Thoreau’s basic philosophy is very different compared to what was fashionable at the time because he no longer looks at the positive side of everything. Sure, you could have more, but what would you have to give in return? Is it worth it anyway? For him, freedom is worth much more than material comfort. Finally someone who appreciated the cost-benefit ratio instead of just the benefits.
[…] the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it.
By working for about 6 weeks, he was able to make enough money for his annual needs. Six weeks per year, people! I know it was a different time, but still… He taught for a while, but it took a much bigger energy investment than he would’ve liked. And because he did it for money, not just for the benefit of his peers, he experienced it as a failure. Another option would have been commerce, which he despised. And besides: it takes a lot of work, and there is no sharp “end date” to it. So he worked as a day laborer instead, of which the 6 weeks were enough. For him, making a living was more of a hobby.
My greatest skill has been to want but little.
Now, when you hear figures like this, many people will probably say “What a preposterous assumption, this is not the world we live in today”! But I hope the lesson still shines through: even if the absolute values have changed, we could still work proportionally (and significantly) less if we wanted to. And let’s face it, we could want a lot less… But that’s not cool, because today we really don’t live in that kind of world anymore!
A valuable life
By coincidence, Thoreau moved into his cabin in the woods on the 4th of July – a true Independence Day. It wasn’t even ready for winter at the time, it was just sheltering him from the rain, but that wasn’t cause enough for delay. He felt about as isolated and remote there as if he was in another corner of the universe – but of course he viewed all this in an absolutely positive light.
Every morning he got up early and bathed in the lake. Another author stating that the source of all superiority is most clearly available in the morning. He claims that if some mechanical device is just pushing you out of bed instead of your inner Genius excitedly welcoming the new day, then there’s trouble already. I, of course, immediately associated this with a modern version:
Mondays are fine. It’s your life that sucks.
– Ricky Gervais
Under these circumstances, he could finally live a valuable, intellectual life.
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion.
It’s nice to paint or carve, of course, but it would be even nicer if we could change our own attitudes. Which we could, but so few of us do. Well, Thoreau did! He deliberately stripped his life down to the bare minimum so that he could really only live what he had to live. His most famous quote – which became a catchphrase in the film Dead Poets Society – is related to this:
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.
He also literally says “Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!”, which is the most succinct way to sum up the whole book, really. True, if we were concerned exclusively with our lives, there would be no one to build railways… But there would also be very few who would even want to travel by rail anyhow. The fact that we are building railways in spite of this shows that it’s actually the railways that are “traveling on us”.
Let’s also realize that 99% of the “news” is just gossip, which, strictly speaking, does not concern us. Or at least it shouldn’t concern us. Let’s read books instead, where we could make huge progress on “the shoulders of giants”! And his current forest conditions were much more suitable for serious reading than even a university.
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!
The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life.
It takes practically a whole lifetime to learn… So let’s take the time to read! A speaker can address an audience eloquently, but a writer’s audience is the whole of humanity. Even those who are not there; or who have not even been born yet! This knowledge does not reassure me as I write this.
It’s worth dealing with the classics first, because they are the only ones that have stood the test of time! Just because something’s newer doesn’t make it any better. The author makes many points about the lack of translation and popular dissemination of the old greats. This is much better today on the technical front – unfortunately not so much on the popularly front.
Such a shame, too, because it’s exactly the heavy reading that would be most worthwhile! Reading the 600th book about the same great love story, only with different names, is not “real” reading. But we do tend to stop at that milestone, causing our subsequent discussions and interactions to be quite embarrassingly low-level.
I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.
The middle bit
As I previously stated, the middle bit will be a bit more scattered, because I had to scrape together the relevant stuff from among a lot of fluff. Consider this section the best of the middle 200 or so pages:
He talks a lot about the trains running nearby and how they force people to be on time. This is where the big rush we are experiencing today was already beginning.
He had no neighbors within a mile, only trees around him and the lake, on whose shore he settled. He could literally have been anywhere else and not be any more “left alone”.
I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.
Everyone makes their home where the resources they need to live are close by. For whom it’s the human companionship, the shop or the bar; they obviously remain villagers. But for those who like nature, they go out into nature. And so leaving people behind is not a “sacrifice” that others should “wonder how he stands it!”.
Loneliness is not measured by how far you are from the nearest person. You can be alone in a large group, yet you don’t have to be lonely on your own if you’re busy. What many people don’t understand is that if you’re not doing a physical job, you can be busy at home, alone, in your head.
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
He had 3 chairs: 1 for solitude, 2 for friendship, and 3 for company. There was a time, though, when he had as many as 30 people over and they still fit. This also shows that the majority of our houses are much bigger than they need to be. And if more space was needed for larger conversations to “properly” unfold, there was the whole forest as a back room.
He had a woodcutter mate who he describes as a very “simple man”. Very much an adult physically, but barely a child intellectually. I think this is worth mentioning because it reminded me of the way most people are educated today: just enough to know their place and their business, but not enough to be able to know any better.
A nice thought about why there was no lock on his door:
I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.
As one leans more and more towards the moral, philosophical life, one moves away from the pursuit of physical pleasures, such as food. Nothing shows the rarity of the moral life better than the fact that whole nations are stuck in the larval period of gorging. It is not the quantity or quality of food that is the main issue, but our attitude towards food. If we want to feed not only our bodies – so that we can live a moral life – but let our appetites and tastes be the leading stimulus… Now that’s the problem.
We all have the “animal” in us that is awake about as much as the higher consciousness is asleep.
A little Stoic philosophy repetition, just to echo Marcus Aurelius:
With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent.
He also responds beautifully to the (apparent!) inconsistencies that arise when measuring the depth of the pond. Where some estimate fails, it is not because we have found a contradiction in natural law. All we have found is that there are things we don’t yet understand.
A strong finish
We set most of our limits ourselves. Let’s try to “stretch” our lives out a bit! And that doesn’t necessarily mean chasing giraffes in Africa…
Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find a thousand regions in your mind yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be expert in home-cosmography.
It may sound strange, but for many it is easier to travel the world thousands of miles at a time, cold and hungry, than to look in the mirror. Escaping from themselves even makes it easier for some people to go to war, if they are then not forced to clean house internally.
Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist.
It is often discussed how far modern man is intellectually behind ancient civilizations, or even those only a few hundred years ago. But what’s the point of complaining?
A living dog is better than a dead lion.
Let’s stop bitching about being dogs… And let’s be the best dogs we can be instead! And if we’re determined enough to go after our goals, we can achieve successes we never imagined, even as dogs.
Try to see what is; not what we think is.
However mean your life is […] It is not so bad as you are.
The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.
Let’s strive for simplicity and minimalism! Let us pare down our lives so that the essentials can play a greater role!
Cultivate poverty like a garden herb.
Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.
And in a way, we are even preaching the acknowledgment of ignorance emphasized in Sapiens. Let’s not be content with the status quo! Let’s not think that we know or have seen everything, so we can just celebrate and congratulate ourselves! Let’s stay alert, watch, learn, and keep improving, because:
Only that day dawns to which we are awake.
We have seen that a happy and fulfilling life does not require as much “stuff” as we might first think. But I would ask everyone to try and concentrate on the principle of what we are saying, rather than on the concrete implementation! It would be easy to brand this whole minimalism thing as stupid because of Thoreau’s extreme fanaticism; and that would be a big mistake.
Let’s think of it as a call to awareness instead, where we can also – a little violently – question the “baked-in”, default parts of our world view. Do I need the latest smartphone? How much life energy am I burning for those few days in the Seychelles? Do I replace my car because it’s already replacement-ready – or just because the neighbor’s got a new one, too? Do I even need a car?
So it’s not necessarily a case of foregoing electricity and tap water and heading straight for the woods. But we’re probably far enough on the other side of this spectrum to feel Thoreau-ly chastised right now…