Thoreau’s key to happiness was through simplicity. He went to the woods (to live deliberately) and left us with this touchstone of wisdom about what we should strive for, especially as the world gets faster and more complex. He advocates the quiet life of living alone in nature, which plucks at my heartstrings like a drunk banjo player. He is rich not in money, but in sunny hours and summer days.
In this section, Thoreau details how he was able to conduct his grand experiment, how much he spent on the construction of his house in the woods near Walden Pond. Most of this part is spent deriding the nature of “work”, how man has no time to be anything but a machine. If men were to live more simply, they could exist by working a few weeks out of the year and studying the remainder, or pursuing their passions.
Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moths and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life…
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?
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 I threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, and end which it was already but too easy to arrive at… 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…. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.
This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it, reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.
Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East, -to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them, – who were above such trifling.
In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, 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 a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.
… I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way… The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do. It is by a mathematical point only that we are wise, as the sailor or the fugitive slave keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life. We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we would preserve the true course.
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
This is where Thoreau ramps up the poetry, going to the woods to live deliberately, etc. He compliments himself on remaining unencumbered from owning a farm, or settling down.
I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only. Why, the owner does not know it for many years when a poet has put his farm in rhyme, the most admirable kind of invisible fence, has fairly impounded it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream, and left the farmer only the skimmed milk.
This in particular was of interest to my teenage self, bearing markings from decades ago:
As long as possible live free and uncommitted.
There was something cosmical about (the morning); a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world. The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.
“All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art… date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous though keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of mean. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me… The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
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 teh 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.
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.
How can I not trip over myself in haste to read this chapter? Thoreau is a classics snob, encouraging you to read Homer or Aeschylus in Greek (one of my notes from a teenaged reading of this “What is so great about Homer?”).
To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations…. That age will be rich indeed when those relics which we call Classics… shall have further accumulated with Homers and Dantes and Shakespeares, and all the centuries to come shall have successively deposited their trophies in the forum of the world. By such a pile we may hope to scale heaven at last.
…of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tiptoe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.
On unchallenging writing:
The result is a dullness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties.
He continues the reading theme in this section, but focuses on the birds and lack of other sounds except nature.
Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.
My pen was quivering with anticipation, ready to highlight the crap out of this section. Turns out my younger self had already attacked a lot of the good bits, starred even. It starts out strongly:
This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore.
He warms up to some lovely passages:
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. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis in the desert.
Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are.
Thoreau wants to be sure you know he loves good company, too.
One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words. You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port.
Much much more, but I grow weary at transcription, having marked up most of the book as a teenager and still appreciating the marks decades later. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.