Chosen question: 5. Detail the lessons learned by Henry David Thoreau in chapters 1 and 18 of Walden, and describe what part these lessons play in Thoreau’s philosophy of “a life of simplicity” (1879).
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, is a text written in the first person perspective which details the experiences of the author during his two year experiment in living at Walden Pond; and the philosophical ideas that came to him during his stay there, regarding living simply and deliberately, knowing yourself, and searching for truth. In Walden, Thoreau portrays himself “as an exemplary figure who – by virtue of his philosophical questionings, economic good sense, nonconformity, and appreciative observation of the natural world – could serve as a model for others” (Baym 1853).
In particular, Walden deals with Thoreau’s concept of living a life of simplicity. He believes that lessons in simplifying one’s experience and self reliance results in a happier existence. He states that complicating one’s life is unnecessary and will only lead to dissatisfaction.
He illustrates his idea of simplicity when he realises that the three stones on his desk need dusting daily he throws them out the window – stating:
“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust”(Thoreau Walden 32).
He argues that owning more than life’s necessities afflicts one’s soul with worry and limitation, and therefore costing them their inner freedom.
Thoreau uses a prophetic tone to inform his reader the moral of his Walden experiment. He wrote detailed account of his time at Walden in order to allow others who “labor under a mistake” (Thoreau Walden 3) to be enlightened about the advantages of a simplified way of life.
In Thoreau’s Journal, the entry entitled “Snow-Crust”, dated 29th of February 1852, he defines simplicity as “the law of nature for men as well as for flowers” (Thoreau Journal 324). On the 1st of September of the following year, in his Journal entry called “Simplicity in Living”, Thoreau identifies “two kinds of simplicity” (Thoreau Journal 411). The first being of the savage who he says to be: “both outwardly and inwardly simple” (Thoreau Journal 412). The second type of simplicity he gives to the philosopher’s mode of living, which he deems “only outwardly simple, but inwardly complex” (Thoreau Journal 411).
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In Walden, Thoreau urges, “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” (Thoreau Walden 84). He views American society to be “…cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense…and the only cure for it…is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose” (Thoreau Walden 84).
Thoreau had two main influences which inspired him the carry out his Walden experiment. The first being Stearns Wheeler, who had “built a hut on a pondy shore near Concord” in which Thoreau had been his guest years before (Thoreau Bode 258). Another prominent influence on Thoreau was his like-minded friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was “the most important influence and friendship of [Thoreau’s] life” (Baym 1854). It was Emerson’s transcendentalist book “Nature”, published in 1836, that Thoreau drew some of his philosophical ideas which inspired his writing (Thoreau Bode 258).
In the first chapter of Walden, “Economy”, Thoreau explains his concepts of living simply and deliberately. Thoreau relays that it is better to acquire only life’s necessities, that “[m]ost of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (Thoreau Walden 11). He states that one is not truly experiencing life if they do not live intentionally. His notion of living deliberately was to concentrate on each part of life; by observing your surroundings and living through each moment of life. Thoreau:
“…more than anything else attempted to provoke his readers to think – to “wake…up,” as he put it in the book’s epigraph. Life is short and life is miraculous, Thoreau insists, and it is incumbent on each individual to figure out how best to respond to the circumstances of the moment” (Baym 1857).
In his exploration of this idea, he states that his reason for living at Walden was to depict what is truly necessary in life, and that he “went to the woods to live deliberately” (Thoreau Walden 83). Through his experiment in living in the woods – by removing unnecessary extravagance from his life – he discovered that the basic essentials of humans were food, shelter, fuel, and clothing (Thoreau Walden 10). He believed these four provisions were all that were needed, “…for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success” (Thoreau Walden 10).
Thoreau theorises that there are two ways to resolve being dissatisfied with one’s possessions. A person can either acquire more or reduce their desires. Thoreau notes that his neighbours in Concord take the first option, buying the latest fashions and luxuries. But he prefers the second resolution, believing that we should possess only what is necessary for us to live in relative comfort. In saying this he advises his reader to also simplify their lives and that it will lead to a happier existence. He further clarifies by exclaiming: “Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!” (Thoreau Walden 84).
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In “Economy”, Thoreau demonstrates his ideas of simplicity and self-reliance in the building of his small house in the woods. He begins construction with nothing and slowly acquires supplies through borrowing, receiving gifts, and some purchasing. On 4th of July 1845, he moves into his dwelling at Walden, liberating himself from the norms of society, “…a symbolic movement of personal liberation aligned with the celebration of national freedom” (Baym 1854).
For the duration of Thoreau’s Walden experiment, he maintains a meticulous account of all his debits and credits. It is through Thoreau’s own “economy” that he ascertains the true necessities to live a content life.
In the final chapter, entitled “Conclusion”, the tone becomes more urgent in comparison to the relaxed descriptive storytelling of the previous chapters. The text features an increased number of direct commands, for example, “Say what you have to say, not what you ought” (Thoreau Walden 304). However, Thoreau’s use of “you” in his dictations does not imply superiority over his reader as he generally includes himself, often referring to “us”. Although the tone is a morally righteous one, it also resonates with an assurance of equality amongst all people.
In contrast to the first chapter’s meandering pace, the last chapter features far more intense, personal addresses to its reader. It is this change in pace that highlights the urgency of Thoreau’s concluding message – that in reading of his experiences in Walden and of his philosophical ideas, his readers will be inspired to begin living their lives differently.
In the chapter “Conclusion”, Thoreau also recommends self exploration instead of travelling geographically, deeming it “not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar” (Thoreau Walden 299). He believes that through observing nature it is possible to receive a more insightful view of one’s own soul. He mentions an example of when doctors suggest a change of scenery for patients. Thoreau feels that a change of the soul may be more beneficial advice. In his encouragement of self exploration, he emphasises that knowing yourself and what is true, is “more than love, than money, than fame” (Thoreau Walden 307). He expresses disapproval towards the heightened consumerism of Americans and urges his reader to value their thoughts over luxuries, “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only” (Thoreau Walden 305).
In writing Walden, Thoreau hoped to inspire his reader to find their own path in life and not to follow the crowd. He uses his time at Walden as an example, to show the reader what is possible when you set your mind to something out of the norm, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” (Thoreau Walden 303). Thoreau concludes the text by highlighting his awareness that the common “John or Jonathan” (Thoreau Walden 310) reading Walden may not comprehend his elevated text. However, he reassures his reader with his prediction that a new way of life is approaching.
In the first and final chapters of Walden, Thoreau details his various experiences in starting out in Walden and then what he has learnt from the two year project. His descriptive narrative is veined with his philosophical ideas of adapting a simplistic approach to life.
In an effort to live life in a simplified manner, Thoreau suggests a reduction of “things in proportion” (Thoreau Walden 84). He felt that in doing this, one maintained control over their life. He discovered that through the simplification of a person’s experience, they would be open to learning about life. However, in order to do this, the reader must learn self-reliance. He shows this by example in his farming of beans, which resulted in him successfully covering his costs, therefore learning the lesson of relying on himself.
It is with this simplicity and self-reliance that Thoreau deeply respected the flourishing life of the woods at Walden. He greatly appreciated and worshiped the nature he experienced around him. He describes Walden Pond as the “earth’s eye” (Thoreau Walden 173), feeling that it encapsulates both earth and air, “It is intermediate in its nature between land and sky” (Thoreau Walden 176). In Walden, Thoreau illustrates the advantages of simplifying one’s life and observing nature:
“Let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores. Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavour to become one of the worthies of the world” (Thoreau Walden 71).
Therefore, through reading Thoreau’s Walden the reader not only gets an insight into the individuals deep appreciation for nature, but one can also see it as an example of putting into action his various philosophical concepts. As can be seen throughout the text, Thoreau is eager in his encouragement for his reader to take heed of his advice – to live a life of simplicity in order to gain happiness and self-fulfilment.
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