There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers… To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. (12)
“It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them” (138).
As I went about my wanderings through the Uttaranchal Himalayas, I had with me Thoreau’s Walden, which turned out to be wonderfully timely and appropriate reading. I only barely finished it within my last day of hiking, having been totally exhausted from scaling rocks and whatnot all day, not to mention the rarity of light and my unwillingness to use my headlamp except in case of emergency (like when I heard an animal outside the tent at 3300m up and went out searching, clutching my Swiss Army knife like a crazy person and hoping I didn’t fall off the cliff in the total darkness but for my one beam). I enjoyed reading some more literary philosophy like this; though I often find heavily metaphorical writing obtuse or exhausting, this was a nice break from treatises and essays and the like. Thoreau’s writing is really a joy to read, and the philosophy behind it – though I find myself taking issue on several points – has something to teach everyone. In this post I’m going to reflect on a few specific quotes that spoke to me particularly, because I’m too tired and scatterbrained to write something coherent on the whole.
There were certainly notes of Thoreau that seemed to echo Epicurus, though he quotes many philosophers and not this one in particular. But he admonished those who think they need things like tea and coffee, when he knows that the truest pleasure is having what is needed and living simply. This is very Epicurean – he at one point writes that his cabin at Walden Pond will be grander than the grandest houses in the town. He remarks at the beginning of the book: “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labours of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (5).
As I traveled these days, I wore but one set of clothes. Though I stunk to high heaven, I felt validated by dear Thoreau: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes” (19). Certainly by the end of this journey I was a new wearer, in more ways than one.
He makes a relevant remark regarding the student of his time, and I dare say the student of our time: “I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from the beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics… Even the poor student studies and is taught only political economy, while that economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy is not even sincerely professed in our colleges. The consequence is, that while he is reading Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say, he runs his father in debt irretrievably” (40-41). This is perhaps more true than ever, and one of the issues I am trying to confront this year… (the state of learning philosophy, not irretrievable debt – although almost holla ND financial aid).
I have a certain affinity for philosophies that manage to combine a degree of elitism or at least strong criticism of society with a healthy dose of self-hatred. “I never dreamed of any enormity greater than I have committed. I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself” (61). I’m not being facetious here. I have a hard time believing those who proclaim the evils of society without proclaiming, in equal volume and tenor, the evils of themselves. And oneself is exactly what Thoreau is writing about here; it may very well be a useful critique of society, but it is more urgently a call to know oneself.
While my project is developed around the idea that philosophy demands to be lived, I fully acknowledge that there are many, if not infinitely many, ways to live philosophically. In these days of mountain hiking, I tried to live a somewhat different philosophical life from what I have been doing up until now with my project. For the majority of each day, I was doing nothing but walking and thinking. “For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo! now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune” (89). I didn’t try to help or affect the lives of the orphans I met in the villages – I just got to know them, and their aspirations, and their daily lives. I experienced so many things in such a minimal way, and I have everything and nothing to show for it.
One thing I constantly feel guilty about – Watson Fellowship or not – is the time I spend stationary, reading or sitting and doing nothing but thinking. I have an internal impulse that tells me this is a waste of time, reinforced by the constant inquiries as to whether I am alright, or if I am bored, or if there is something I would like to do (what I am doing!). Thoreau eloquently defends this behavior: “but [the farmer] does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his…” (107).
“Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones” (176). I find this sentiment to be true, and I often remind myself of it when I make unhealthy choices. But Thoreau means more than just diet and exercise here, obviously. However, this aside, I had some problems with his use of and allusions to Eastern philosophy. He refers often to Indian and Chinese philosophy, almost always in praise. Having been now in India for several months, I find he quite mischaracterizes the philosophies, if they can be so generalized in the first place. Most of the Hindus I have met put no thought into their religion. The isolated villages in the north all follow Hinduism as a part of life that is not a choice, or something to question or reflecton, but just actions that one takes. One goes to worship three days at the temple in the same way one gathers wood for fuel. In the more affluent south I found many borderline-cultish Hindu gurus who collected (quite a lot of) money from their devoted followers. To grant the virtue of simplicity to this religion is a grave error. They are as crowded with ceremony and pomp as any other aspect of culture; there are 84 million Hindu gods, and rituals and traditions that do nothing but detract from the simplicity of life are pervasive (“…how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”). In some ways here I also feel to be reacting against those who label Spinoza as closer to the eastern philosophies; I think this is a gross misreading and it ultimately comes down to reason. Eastern philosophies do not value reason, at least not in comparison to the West. Look simply at the method of teaching – it is primarily a set of easy-to-remember maxims. But perhaps now I’ve gone too far.
After trudging up the slopes to the tents, I read another validating passage: “How much more interesting an event is that man’s supper who has just been forth in the snow to hunt, nay, you might say, steal, the fuel to cook it with!” (197). Upon making it to the tents, I had a silent but joyful evening with the watchman (who spoke no English except ‘welcome’) and we chopped some wood for our fire, sat by the embers, and cooked a warm meal of rice, daal, and chapati. Indeed an interesting supper.
My time alone in the hills was lonely at moments, but almost painfully illuminating in how I now understand myself. I pushed myself to the edge – physically, emotionally, and mentally. I was scared out of my mind at times; sometimes I was so cold I couldn’t bring myself to put my fingers near the fire for fear of the sharp but necessary pain; at moments my legs quivered and my heart throbbed in my throat, not trained for such hikes and such altitude; but all of this was necessary. To know myself I had to know my boundaries – and perhaps I did not yet even find them. I learned to listen and respond to my body, and I began to build the strength of my mind in overcoming these physical weaknesses. It was rewarding in that I almost broke. “What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone…” (253).