As described in recent posts, I’m creating a new adaptation of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. After months of editing and research, I’m excited to finally share the first several chapters with you. The following is chapter one, which includes edits by myself and Billy Merrell, my co-editor. Please note that the printed edition will include annotations for reference material and words or phrases that bear explanation. For more about this project and the forthcoming Kickstarter campaign, read this post.
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1. A Quiet Desperation
When I wrote most of the following words, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
Some people have asked what I ate, if I felt lonely or afraid, and the like. Others have been curious to learn how much of my income I devoted to charity; and some, who have large families, how many poor children I maintained. I will therefore ask those of you who feel no particular interest in me to pardon me if I try to answer some of these questions in this book. In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted. Here it will be retained. We often forget that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I would not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I’m confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Besides, I think it is a worthy exercise for every writer to offer a simple and sincere account of their life, and not merely what they have heard of other people’s lives; the kind of account they would send to their family from a distant land. If they have lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me. Perhaps these words are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, please accept such portions as apply to you. I trust that no one will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may be of good service to those whom it fits.
I wish to say something, not so much concerning people in wild and remote corners of the world as those of you who are said to live in highly developed societies. I would like to talk about your condition, especially your outward condition or circumstances in this world: what it is, whether it is necessary that it be as bad as it is, and whether it cannot be improved. I have traveled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere — in shops, offices, and fields — the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. I’ve heard of Brahmins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun. Hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames. Looking at the heavens over their shoulders “until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach.” Dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree. Measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires. Standing on one leg on the tops of pillars. Even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more astonishing than the scenes I witness every day. The twelve labors of Hercules were trivial in comparison with those which my neighbors have taken upon themselves; for they were only twelve, and had an end. But I have never seen one of my contemporaries kill or capture any monster or finish any labor. They have no friend to cauterize the hydra’s neck with a hot iron. As soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.
I see young people, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools. These are more easily acquired than got rid of. It would be better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by wolves, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them slaves of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have to live an adult’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many poor immortal souls have I met nearly crushed and smothered under their load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before them a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its enormous stables never fully cleaned, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who struggle with no such inherited encumbrances, find it hard enough to tame and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.
But we labor under a mistake. The better part of the person is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By an ostensible fate, commonly called necessity, they spend their days, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break in and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before. In ancient Greek mythology, the ancestors of the Hellenic race were advised by a seer to create people by throwing stones over their heads behind them. Or as Sir Walter Raleigh rhymes it in his sonorous way,
“From thence our kind hard-hearted is, enduring pain and care,
Approving that our bodies of a stony nature are.”
So much for a blind obedience to a blundering oracle, throwing the stones over their heads behind them, and not seeing where they fell.
Most people, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and error, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. In truth, the laborer has no leisure for a true integrity day by day. He cannot afford to sustain the most personable relations with people. His labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember his ignorance — which his growth requires — when he must constantly use his knowledge? The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another so tenderly.
Some of you are poor, finding it hard to live — at times, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubt that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners you have actually eaten, or for your clothes which are fast wearing out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. It is evident what small and sneaking lives many of you live, for my sight has been whetted by experience. You’re ever on the limits, trying to get into business and out of debt. It’s an ancient story, called aes alienum by the Romans, another’s brass, for some of their coins were made of brass. Still living and dying, and buried by this other’s brass. Promising to pay tomorrow, and dying insolvent today. Seeking to curry favor or win business by myriad ways, short of prison-worthy offenses. Lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, in order to persuade your neighbor to let you make their shoes, hat, coat, or carriage, or import her groceries. Making yourselves sick, so that you may save something for a sick day or the distant future when you retire and cease all work at once — something to be tucked away in the bank — no matter where, no matter how much or how little.
I sometimes wonder how we can go along with the widespread and un-American form of servitude called Negro Slavery. There are many keen and subtle masters that enslave both North and South. It is hard to have a Southern overseer. It is worse to have a Northern one. But worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. Talk of a divinity in man! Look at the teamster on the highway, traveling to market by day and night. Does any divinity stir within him? His highest duty is to feed and water his horses! What is his destiny to him compared with shipping interests? How godlike, how immortal, is he? See how he cowers, how vaguely he fears all day long, not being immortal nor divine, but the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, a fame won by his own deeds. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself determines, or rather indicates, his fate. Self-emancipation even in the West Indian provinces of the imagination — what Wilberforce will bring that about? Think, also, of the ladies of the land weaving toilet cushions — or otherwise toiling to increase the comforts of the comfortable — never betraying too green an interest in their fates! As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
The masses lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and find no one braver than minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under the so-called games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
When we consider what is the main purpose of humanity, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if people had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence affirms as true today may turn out to be untrue tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What older generations say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perhaps, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire going. New people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds. Age is no better, nor hardly so well qualified for an instructor as youth. It has not gained as much as it has lost. Has the wisest person learned anything of absolute value by living? Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young. Their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe. It may be that they have some faith left which contradicts that experience, and they are only less young than they once were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything applicable. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not help me to know that they’ve tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I’m sure to reflect that my mentors said nothing about it.
One farmer says to me, “You cannot live on vegetable food alone. It furnishes nothing to make bones with.” And so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones, walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle. Some things are really necessaries of life in certain circles, the most helpless and diseased, while in others they are considered luxuries, and still in others are entirely unknown.
The whole ground of human life seems to some to have been gone over by their predecessors, both the heights and the valleys, and all things to have been cared for. According to John Evelyn, “the wise Solomon prescribed ordinances for the very distances of trees; and the Roman prætors have decided how often you may go into your neighbor’s land to gather the acorns which fall on it without trespass, and what share belongs to that neighbor.” Hippocrates even left directions on how we should cut our nails; that is, even with the ends of the fingers, neither shorter nor longer. Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which seem to have exhausted the variety and joys of life are as old as Adam. But our capacities have never been measured; nor should we judge what we can do by any precedents. Very little has been tried. Whatever failures you’ve made thus far, “Yet be not afflicted, my child, for who shall efface what thou hast formerly done, or shall assign to thee what thou hast left undone?”
We might measure our lives by a thousand simple tests. For instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I hoed them. Stars are apexes of such wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same star at the same moment! Nature and human life on this planet are rich with variety. Who can say what prospects life offers to each person? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? We could live in all the ages of the world in an hour; yes, in all the worlds of the ages. History, poetry, mythology! I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.
Most of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man — you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind. I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.
I think that we could safely trust a good deal more than we do. We might waive so much care of ourselves as we afford elsewhere. Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength. The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a nearly incurable form of disease. We perpetually exaggerate the importance of the work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! What if we had fallen asleep or ill? How vigilant we are! Determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; on the alert from dawn till dusk, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. We are compelled to live, revering our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say. But there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one center. All change is a miracle to contemplate, but the miracle of change is taking place every instant. Confucius said, “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” When one person has reduced a fact of the imagination to be a fact to their understanding, I predict that all of us will eventually establish our lives on that basis.
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Let us consider for a moment where most of the trouble and anxiety I have referred to is rooted, and how truly necessary it is that we be troubled, or at least careful. It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the real necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them; or even to look over the purchase logs of shop owners, to see what it was that people most commonly bought at the stores, what they stored, that is, what are the grossest groceries. The improvements of aeons have had little influence on the essential laws of human existence. Our skeletons, for example, are indistinguishable from those of our ancestors.
By the words necessaries of life, I mean all things that we obtain by our own exertion that have been a requirement all along, or from long use has become so important to human life that few, if any, ever attempt to do without it. To many creatures there is in this sense only one necessary of life: food. To the bison it is a few inches of palatable grass on the prairie, with water to drink, unless he seeks the shelter of the forest or the mountain’s shadow. No animal requires more than food and shelter. The necessaries of life for man in temperate climates may be distributed under the several categories of food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. Until we have secured these, we are not prepared to consider the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success. People invented not only houses, but clothes and cooked food; and possibly from the accidental discovery of the warmth of fire, and the consequent use of it, at first a luxury, came the present necessity to sit by it. We observe cats and dogs acquiring the same second nature. With adequate shelter and clothing we retain our own internal heat. But with an excess of fuel, i.e., with an external heat greater than our own internal, cooking may truly be said to begin. Darwin said of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, that while his own companions, who were well clothed and sitting close to a fire, were far from too warm, these naked natives, who were farther off, were observed, to his great surprise, “to be streaming with perspiration at undergoing such a roasting.” So, we are told, the Patagonian went naked with impunity, while the European shivered in his clothes. Is it impossible to combine the hardiness of these natives with the knowledge of civilized man? According to Justus von Liebig, man’s body is a stove, and food the fuel which keeps up the internal combustion in the lungs. In cold weather we eat more, in warm less. The animal or body heat is the result of slow combustion, and disease and death take place when this is too rapid; or for lack of fuel, or from some defect in the draft, the fire goes out. It appears, from the above list, that the term animal life is nearly synonymous with the term animal heat; for while food may be regarded as the fuel which keeps up the fire within us — and fuel serves only to prepare that food or to increase the warmth of our bodies by addition from without — shelter and clothing also serve only to retain the heat we generate and absorb.
The great necessity for our bodies, then, is to keep warm, to keep the vital heat in us. What pains we then take, not only with our food, clothing, and shelter, but with our beds, which are our night clothes, robbing the nests and breasts of birds to prepare this shelter within a shelter, like the mole with its bed of grass and leaves at the end of its burrow! The poor person complains that this is a cold world. To cold, no less physical than social, we attribute a great part of our discomfort.
The summer, in some climates, makes it possible for people to have a sort of Elysian life. Fuel, except to cook food, is then unnecessary. The sun is his fire, and many fruits are sufficiently cooked by its rays. Food is generally more various and more easily obtained. Clothing and shelter are wholly or partially unnecessary. These days, a few implements rank next to necessaries, and can all be obtained at a modest cost. A knife, an axe, a spade, a wheelbarrow, etc. — and for the studious, light for reading, stationery, and access to a few books. Yet those who lack wisdom circle the globe in the pursuit of wealth, and devote themselves to stockpiling more than they need, in order that they may live — that is, keep comfortably warm — and die in their homeland at last. The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot; as I implied before, they are cooked, of course à la mode.
Most of the luxuries and so-called comforts of life are not only superfluous, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have always lived a simpler life than the poor. The ancient philosophers were a poorer class than most others in outward riches, yet inwardly richer than all others. We know little about them. It is remarkable that we know as much of them as we do. The same is true of the more recent reformers and benefactors of humanity. No one can be an impartial or wise observer of human life except from the vantage of what we might call voluntary poverty. Of a life of luxury the fruit is luxury, whether in agriculture, commerce, literature, or art. Today there are professors of philosophy, but no philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to love wisdom so much 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. The success of great scholars and thinkers rarely rises above the achievements of courtiers, never kings nor queens. They live merely by conformity, much the same as their ancestors did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a noble race of people. But why do we degenerate? What makes families die out? What is the nature of the luxury which enervates and destroys nations? Are we sure that there is none of it in our own lives? The philosopher is ahead of his time even in the outward form of his life. He is not fed, sheltered, clothed, or warmed like his contemporaries. How can a man be a philosopher and not maintain his vital heat by better methods than other people?
When a person is warmed by the methods which I have described, what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the same kind, such as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous, incessant, and hotter fires, and the like. When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative to obtaining the superfluities. He may now begin the adventure of life, his vacation from humbler toil having begun. The soil, it appears, is suited to the seed, for it has sent its radicle downward, and may now send its shoot upward with confidence. Why has man rooted himself firmly in the earth, if not so that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above? The nobler plants are valued for the fruit they bear at last in the air and light, far from the ground. They are not treated like the humbler esculents, which, though they may be biennials, are cultivated only till they have perfected their root, and are often cut down at top so that most would not recognize them in their flowering season.
I do not mean to prescribe rules to people with strong and brave natures, who will mind their own business whether in heaven or hell. Such types may build more magnificently and spend more lavishly than the richest without ever impoverishing themselves. Nor do I address those who find encouragement and inspiration in precisely the present condition of things, and cherish it with the fondness and enthusiasm of lovers — and, to some extent, I reckon myself in this number. I don’t speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not. I speak mainly to the many of you who are discontent, and idly complaining of the hardness of your lot or of the times, when you might improve them. There are some who complain most loudly and inconsolably of any, because they are, as they say, doing their duty. I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but don’t know how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.
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Like what you just read? Here’s chapter two. Until the Kickstarter campaign begins on February 16, I’ll post one chapter each week until the first six are up on Medium. If you wish to read the rest of this adaptation in glorious print, then I invite you to support the campaign when it comes out and help us bring this book to life!
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