“Give Me Truth!” – Revisiting Thoreau’s “Walden”

August 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Books I read come and go, some stay in my mind for a while, but I have a nagging suspicion that Walden might be one of the most important books I have read in my life. A piece of “practical philosophy” that clears away the self-help clutter that invades the bookshelves of malls everywhere.

Every revision, every step back to look at my life, every meta-analysis, somehow goes back to Thoreau’s musings after two years at Concord’s Walden Pond. Instead of blindly accepting conventional ways of civilization, Thoreau sought truth beyond the media, but in the simplicity and allure of nature and literary works like the Iliad.

When faced with the complications and frustrations of modern city life, Walden sheds light on the truth of man’s existence.

Here are some thought provoking passages from the book, on the conduct of oneself in daily life, that seems to run parallel to Stoic philosophy:

I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship, but a pasttime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

There was a shepherd that did live,
And held his thoughts high
As were the mounts whereon his flocks
Did hourly feed him by.

However mean 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 fault finder will find faults even in paradise.

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.

Thoreau has much to say about the practice of travel, beyond physical travel. The base human need for exploration and adventure.

Our village life could stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wilderness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bitten and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe, to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that the land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.

We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

“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.”

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.

The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!

And for some, whose capacity and thirst for life cannot be simply fulfilled by the wares that the masses and mass media parades in front of us:

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

Here’s my previous post, and first reading of Walden


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