Monday, October 26, 2009

Walden and some thoughts.

Many years ago, probably in 1982 or 1983, my mother gave me a copy of "Walden" and "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau. I've been re-reading it again this past week for a class I'm teaching, and I'm finding many of the interesting passages I vaguely remembered, and some ideas that were influential on my development as a young person. Here is a collection of passages I found either interesting, thought-provoking, challenging, or useful:

On Luxury:

...Most 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. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest
have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient
philosophers, Chinese, Hindu, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none
has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. ... None can be an
impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we
should call voluntary poverty. ...

On Simple Living (giving up yeast):

...Yet I find it not to be an essential ingredient, and after going without it for a
year am still in the land of the living; and I am glad to escape the
trivialness of carrying a bottleful in my pocket, which would sometimes pop and
discharge its contents to my discomfiture. It is simpler and more respectable
to omit it. Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all
climates and circumstances. ...

On Superficial

(and Occupational Dress Codes):

...I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new
wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made
to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All
men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to
be. Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty
the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that
we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping
new wine in old bottles. . . .

On Fashion (and why we as individuals
are asked to submit to popular notions):

...When I ask for a garment of a particular form, my tailoress tells me gravely,
"They do not make them so now," not emphasizing the "They" at all, as if she
quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates [goddesses of destiny], and I
find it difficult to get made what I want, simply because she cannot believe that
I mean what I say, that I am so rash. When I hear this oracular sentence,
I am for a moment absorbed in thought, emphasizing to myself each word separately
that I may come at the meaning of it, that I may find out by what degree of
consanguinity They are related to me, and what authority they may have in
an affair which affects me so nearly; and, finally, I am inclined to answer her
with equal mystery, and without any more emphasis of the "they" — "It is true,
they did not make them so recently, but they do now." Of what use this
measuring of me if she does not measure my character, but only the breadth of
my shoulders, as it were a peg to bang the coat on? We worship not the
Graces [goddesses of charm and beauty], nor the Fates, but Fashion. . . .

On the reasons why we do what we do (alienation of labor):

...I cannot believe that our factory system is
the best mode by which men may get clothing.
The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English;
and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed,
the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad,
but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched.
In the long run men hit only what they aim at. . . .

Questioning the value of “Improvement”

As with our colleges, so with a hundred "modern improvements";
there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance.
The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last
for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them.
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys,
which distract our attention from serious things.
They are but improved means to an unimproved end,
an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at;
as railroads lead to Boston or New York.
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas;
but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate....
We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic
and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New;
but perchance the first news that will leak
through into the broad, flapping American ear
will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.
After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute
does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist,
nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey....

Suggesting that we are servants to our tools (domestic
animals require more work than they are worth):

...I am wont to think that men are not so much the
keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the
freer. Men and oxen exchange work; but if we consider necessary work only, the
oxen will be seen to have greatly the advantage, their farm is so much the
larger. Man does some of his part of the exchange work in his six weeks of
haying, and it is no boy's play. Certainly no nation that lived simply in all
respects, that is, no nation of philosophers, would commit so great a blunder
as to use the labor of animals....

...Though we have many substantial houses of brick or
stone, the prosperity of the farmer is still measured by the degree to which
the barn overshadows the house. This town is said to have the largest houses
for oxen, cows, and horses hereabouts, and it is not behindhand in its public
buildings; but there are very few halls for free worship or free speech in this
county. . . .

On large buildings (and, by extension, large institutions,
governments, corporations, etcetera)

...The religion and civilization which are barbaric
and heathenish build splendid temples; but what you might call Christianity
does not. Most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It
buries itself alive. As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them
so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend
their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have
been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to
the dogs. I might possibly invent some excuse for them and him, but I have no
time for it. As for the religion and love of art of the builders, it is much
the same all the world over, whether the building be an Egyptian temple or the
United States Bank. It costs more than it comes to. The mainspring is vanity,
assisted by the love of garlic and bread and butter. . . .

On Self Sufficiency:

...There is a certain class of unbelievers who
sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable
food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once — for the
root is faith — I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board
nails. If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have
to say. . . .

On benefits of simple living:

For more than five years I maintained myself thus
solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks
in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as
well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study. . . .

...As I preferred some things to others, and
especially valued my freedom, as I could fare hard and yet succeed well, I did
not wish to spend my time in earning rich carpets or other fine furniture, or
delicate cookery, or a house in the Grecian or the Gothic style just yet. If
there are any to whom it is no interruption to acquire these things, and who
know how to use them when acquired, I relinquish to them the pursuit. Some are
"industrious," and appear to love labor for its own sake, or perhaps
because it keeps them out of worse mischief; to such I have at present nothing
to say. . . .

On Doing Good:

... There are those who have used all their arts to
persuade me to undertake the support of some poor family in the town; and if I
had nothing to do — for the devil finds employment for the idle — I
might try my hand at some such pastime as that. However, when I have thought to
indulge myself in this respect, and lay their Heaven under an obligation by
maintaining certain poor persons in all respects as comfortably as I maintain
myself, and have even ventured so far as to make them the offer, they have one
and all unhesitatingly preferred to remain poor. . . .

... There is no odor so bad as that which arises
from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a
certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing
me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the
African deserts called the simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and
eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his
good done to me — some of its virus mingled with my blood. No — in
this case I would rather suffer evil the natural way. A man is not a good man
to me because he will feed me if I should be starving, or warm me if I should
be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one. I can
find you a Newfoundland dog that will do as much. Philanthropy is not love
for one's fellow-man in the broadest sense. . . .

... Be sure that you give the poor the aid they
most need, though it be your example which leaves them far behind. If you give
money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them. We make
curious mistakes sometimes. Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he
is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his
misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it. . . .

On Benevolence:

...I would not subtract anything from the praise
that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their
lives and works are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man's
uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those
plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a
humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a
man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness
flavor our intercourse. His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act,
but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is
unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. . . .

...I believe that what so saddens the reformer is
not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest
son of God, is his private ail. Let this be righted, let the spring come to
him, the morning rise over his couch, and he will forsake his generous
companions without apology. My excuse for not lecturing against the use of
tobacco is, that I never chewed it, that is a penalty which reformed
tobacco-chewers have to pay; though there are things enough I have chewed which
I could lecture against. If you should ever be betrayed into any of these
philanthropies, do not let your left hand know what your right hand does, for
it is not worth knowing. Rescue the drowning and tie your shoestrings. Take
your time, and set about some free labor. . . .

How to Live:

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.
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue,
and so to make a few objects beautiful; but 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. Every
man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the
contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather
used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform
us how this might be done.

Why Thoreau went into the woods:

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 practice 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.

Living Slow:

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. As for work, we haven't any of any consequence.
We have the Saint Vitus' dance,
and cannot possibly keep our heads still.

On Disengagement and Disinterest in the world:

And I am sure that I never read any memorable news
in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by
accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown
up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one
lot of grasshoppers in the winter — we never need read of another. One is
enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad
instances and applications? 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.

Transcendentalism and consciousness:

...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.
We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the
stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it. I may be affected by a
theatrical exhibition; on the other hand, I may not be affected by an actual
event which appears to concern me much more. I only know myself as a human
entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of
a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from
another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and
criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but
spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I
than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the
spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination
only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor
neighbors and friends sometimes. . . .

The wisdom of fools:

Far off as I lived, I was not exempted from the annual visitation which occurs,
methinks, about the first of April, when
everybody is on the move;
and I had my share of good luck, though there were
some curious specimens
among my visitors. Half-witted men from the almshouse

and elsewhere came to see me; but I endeavored to make them exercise all the
wit they had, and make their confessions to me; in such cases making wit the
theme of our conversation; and so was compensated. Indeed, I found some of them
to be wiser than the so-called overseers of the poor and selectmen of the town,
and thought it was time that the tables
were turned. With respect to wit,
I learned that there was not much difference
between the half and the whole.
One day, in particular, an inoffensive,
simple-minded pauper,
whom with others I had often seen used as fencing stuff,

standing or sitting on a bushel in the fields to keep cattle and himself from
straying, visited me, and expressed a wish to live as I did. He told me, with
the utmost simplicity and truth, quite superior, or rather inferior,
to anything that is called humility, that he was

"deficient in intellect." These were his words. The Lord had made him
so, yet he supposed the Lord cared as much for him as for another. "I have
always been so," said he, "from my childhood; I never had much mind;
I was not like other children; I am weak in the head. It was the Lord's will, I
suppose." And there he was to prove the truth of his words. He was a
metaphysical puzzle to me. I have rarely met a fellowman on such promising ground
— it was so simple and sincere and so true all that he said. And, true
enough, in proportion as he appeared to humble himself was he exalted. I did
not know at first but it was the result of a wise policy. It seemed that from
such a basis of truth and frankness as the poor weak-headed pauper had laid,
our intercourse might go forward to something better than the intercourse of