Walden; or, Life in the Woods

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).


34 thoughts on “Walden; or, Life in the Woods

  1. A very thought-provoking and insightful blog. I’ve been wanting to read WALDEN and I’m happy to read some quotes and hear some insight in this post. I smiled at your beginning paragraph line: “…clutching my Swiss Army knife like a crazy person and hoping I didn’t fall off the cliff…”

    I really appreciated some of your theories on philosophy (it being something merely studied these days, not practiced) as well as the thoughts of living, your mention of self-doubt in what one is doing being combated by Walden’s lines that every man is a sculptor or a farmer working in his own fields, and the importance of self-inspection.

    It was really an enjoyable read and I thank you for sharing.

  2. Have you researched much of Eastern philosophy? Or was your experience only through living with their culture?

    I myself haven’t really had much direct contact with Hindu or Buddhist or Taoist culture, but from my readings of it (them), it does indeed run quite closely with Thoreau’s ideas. And Spinoza’s, too. I’m sure that the philosophies behind the religion are often overlooked, or totally disregarded, but I’m not so sure that dismissing them based on the point that they are not practised in their purest form – assuming there is a purest form? necessarily negates the parallel. From my knowledge, Spinoza and Thoreau, along with many others sharing philosophical overlaps, were very knowledgable in Eastern literature, and enjoyed it immensely. It may not have shaped their thoughts, but I’m sure it validated them in many ways.

    Anyway, aside from my 37 cents, I like your style, and shall now become a follower of your worded thoughts. Kudos.

    1. I haven’t done any notable research on Eastern philosophy outside of living in India, though I read most of the major works of Chinese though (The Analects, Mencius, the Tao Te Ching, etc). There are certainly veins (in Chinese and Hindu philosophy – not to unnecessarily conflate the two) that echo a very general idea of what we can find in Thoreau and Spinoza. But fundamentally they are very different, especially regarding the basis of their first philosophies or metaphysics. I think a crucial point (at least insofar as we are talking about Hinduism) is that it is precisely a philosophy behind a -religion-. Spinoza, for example, was not promoting a religious philosophy – he very distinctly separates philosophy and theology in the TTP. Thoreau clearly read and enjoyed Eastern literature, but I’m not sure about Spinoza. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it shaped the latter’s philosophy in any way. He started with some very basic and fundamental metaphysical principles, and built from there (at least in the TIE and Ethics!). Certainly Descartes had infinitely more influence than any Eastern philosophies on Spinoza. 🙂

      Thanks for your thoughts… as a student of philosophy, conversation is my mojo juice!

      1. I did a semester in korea (I study law but took on a philosophy subject, cause, well, it interests me more) and I was flawed at how different their method of education was compared to how I thought it would be. The unit was based on the Analects, the Tao Te Ching and general Buddhist texts. In the first class, the teacher said that our job wasn’t to creatively construe the materials, nor was it to give our own opinion in any way, but rather, it was to ingrain the doctrines into our minds, so that we would ‘adopt the master’s mind;’ to turn his phrase. He also said that famous literature was best learnt that way; it wasn’t there to be subjectively interpreted, but enmeshed into the student’s psyche.

        The content (from Buddhism at least, not so much Confucius): look within your self, come to your own conclusion, lose your self.
        How it was taught: repeat, repeat, repeat. Regurgitate. Regurgitate. Regurgitate.
        My reaction: This wasn’t what I signed up for. I’ll sit this one out.

        As a pretend philosopher, ditto.

  3. Since he never travelled there, do you think that Thoreau might have mischaracterized India because his knowledge was limited to what he had read about the country and possibly by tales told by those who had traveled there? I think we would have to read the same books that were available to him to be sure, because it is very possible that they painted an incomplete picture.

    1. I think this is very true. It’s easy to have an idealistic picture of a philosophy or place (or anything!) when you haven’t personally experienced it – this isn’t mean to be derogatory in any way. But we can also paint a rosier picture in our minds when we consider things abstractly without experiencing their praxis. There are a lot of patriarchal structures built into Hindu philosophy that I’m sure Thoreau would have taken issue with. I would agree with your sentiment that if Thoreau had traveled and lived in Eastern cultures he would have had a much different perspective – but at one point in Walden he writes that he does not need to travel to these places, because he has the infinity in himself to explore. So I should clarify and say I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him using Eastern maxims, because texts and thoughts are just the tools of trade in philosophy, and it is how they are used that really matters. And he uses them quite well, I think!

      1. Saying that he had “The infinity in himself to explore” might mean that he didn’t need to explore other cultures because, as the Transcendentalists believed, all of nature and mandkind had spiritual unity with God, so ‘there” wouldn’t be much different than “here.” Or, as the “Lemon Pie Theory” says; if you have tasted a slice, you’ve tasted the whole.
        Walden is one of a handful of books I’ve carried from place to place since i first read it about 40 years ago. Henry was quite a guy.

  4. eatcrumbycrackers

    There is a lot here! You actually think about things and challenge them rather than say; “this is age old famous popular philosophy, it must be right.” And you seemed to actually gain something more tangible in your wilderness travels than any other granola, birkenstock, woolen socked, ‘enlightened’ person I’ve ever known. I enjoyed reading this! Good for you!!!!

  5. akneis

    “I learned to listen and respond to my body, and I began to build the strength of my mind in overcoming these physical weaknesses. ” I find this to be true no matter where life has you in the moment.

  6. Thank you for your insight in to Hinduism. Wow, when one thinks they know something then they get hit with a different perspective. It is good to hear from someone’s experience to help wade through the pomp and circumstance.

    I can definitely relate to finding myself having to justify my time spent in contemplation. It may not be making money for bills, but as you spoke about, I too live simply and do not need much for sustenance so why should I not try to reap the riches by living philosophically. I have had Walden on my shelf for a few months now…I think that may be my next read.

  7. ….It’s not the destination but the journey….and yours must have been and is very inspiring. What is it about trekking through mountains… I’ve had similar experiences in the Rockies. Not the Himalayas, but pretty damn inspiring. Oh, and the philosophy part is great, too.

  8. assortedanomalies

    Excellent post :). I love Walden. It is a brilliant book. I grew up as a Hindu(an atheist now) and I can totally understand when you say “most of the Hindus I have met put no thought into their religion”. And you have hit the nail with the corrupt god-men of south. In southern India religion is an outright business but let me tell you hinduism is nothing like that. Thoreau thankfully refers to hindu and Buddhist scriptures not persons involved with it. Both of them contain some of the most liberal ideas I have known. However like everything since the beginning of time humans have found lots of ways to corrupt them and destroys the ideologies.

  9. Like you, I too “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”.
    “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.”

    Such a melancholy quest to know and then to master oneself. Influenced early by Thoreau’s thinking, in my later years I am driven to experiment on a mixture of his philosophies and those acquired through a lifetime of world travel and observation, to take seriously his challenge to live deeply and deliberately.

    The Village on Sewanee Creek is my Walden’s Pond. I invite all with similar inclinations to join us.

  10. I’m about to read walden finally. In high school i became so obsessed with the ‘ i went to the woods because i wished to live delibrately..” passage. I would read it over and over and always joke with my friend about going to the woods. I just graduated college and I am barely going to read it. So glad i found this post.

  11. Loved your post! I am a huge fan of Thoreau and no a fan of your blog. “I have a hard time believing those who proclaim the evils of society without proclaiming, in equal volume and tenor, the evils of themselves.” Excellent!

  12. Bubu

    i was in highschool when i discovered the war-torn pages of walden. it was placed at the farthest corner of the shelf, no one seemed to read it. i’ve only read those summary-thingy they write at the back. and so i stumbled on your blog. makes me want to read the whole book! thanks for sharin some thoughts. cheers.

  13. Great blog and a great post.
    The only jarring point is the way you have dismissed all of Hindu or Indian philosophy as so many rituals and traditions and Gods. Being an Indian and a Hindu, these same things irritate me sometimes but to dismiss everything on the basis of some days of trekking and touring is not done. Someone of our philosophers has called this tendency of foreigners as tendency to judge India from a ‘train’s window’. You just judged the book by the cover.
    Anyway, I like your views, and i am going to follow your blog.

    1. Hi, and thanks for reading. Please don’t read my blog as being dismissive of all Hindu philosophy, and I apologize if it comes off that way. It wasn’t just a few days trekking (I lived in India for 3 months: in Mumbai, Bengaluru, and in various parts of Uttrakhand). Obviously this doesn’t qualify me to know anything, but my main concern in this post is Thoreau’s misreading of Hindu philosophy as I experienced it (he seems to have the wrong idea of its praxis). I met plenty of lovely and pious Hindus and I have no problem with Hinduism per se, outside of the problems I have with any kind of religion (which are, granted, a lot). 🙂

  14. Hi, Thanks for the reply. You sound so apologetic Mr.Watson as if you have hurt my religious sentiments. What you have said about the millions of Gods ( By the way where did you get this 84 million figure, i have never come across this number. The largest figure i have heard is 3.3 million), and ritulas are true. During your stay in India, i am sure, you must have observed Hindus themselves make fun of all the rituals and god men. In daily life, we make very disparaging remarks about ourselves.

    I have not read Walden, so commenting about what he has said about Hindu philosophy will be dishonest of me.

    But you have said in your comment, about Thoreau’s misreading of Indian philosophy based on your observation of day to day life of the common people. But do you expect, the high ideals that Hinduism or for that matter any religion preaches, should permeate to the lowest common denominator of the society. I think, what we should judge is the principles on which the mass culture of a faith is based on.

    And I think, Thoreau’s interpretation was based on these principles. He also must have seen or at least read ( In the comment section i read that he never visited India) these contradictions between the mass practices and the Hindu philosophy.

    The problem; i think, of course i may be wrong, was your bewilderment at experiencing India for the first time. That doesn’t mean, iI being an Indian, see India at it’s worst and best, on a daily basis and still sometimes it overwhelms me with it’s contradictions.

    Anyway, You have made me curious about Walden. I am definitely going to read it soon.
    Thanks again, Cheers.

  15. What you saw wasn’t a problem with religion, it was a problem that blankets society as a whole. To live life without questioning, for faith to be habit not a choice, or behaviour to be taught upon you rather than learned. As Theroux says, life is an experiment, it is not linear. There are a million habits that people should think about, and if they did they would see the world differently. Us westeners wouldn’t be so into TV, or junk food, or drunk nights, and might be more into reading books, growing food, and talking to people. We may even offer lifts to people at bus stops, or talk to strangers on the train. If you haven’t already I would watch ‘Into the wild’ and definately read ‘The road less travelled’ I get the feeling you would like them?

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