By Yutong Yang, ’20
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published his masterpiece, Walden; or Life in the Woods, a book of transcendental. There, in the woods at Walden Pond, Thoreau alongside with the spiritual idea of individualism and independence on “trusting oneself and his inner promptings” from his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote about his experience living in natural surroundings. His self reflection reached across the theory of personal independence, social experience, spiritual discovery, and self-reliance.
During the early half of the nineteenth century, the United States was rapidly developing through industrialization which caused most Americans to value money, and desire pleasurable experience. Witnessing the rise of industrialization, Thoreau worried that it would impact the authentic relationship between humans and nature, and corrode human nature. He delivered his worries by saying “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…”. In order to confront these fears, he “went back” to nature to reflect his own nature and life essence.
“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.”
Thoreau went back to the wildness to figure out what he could learn from nature; he wanted “to live deliberately”. In another words, he meant to live completely and truly, and to feel the intangible power of nature.
“I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
“The essential facts of life” referred both to material necessities like food and shelter, and also to the core of human existence. We human beings can not avoid both the satisfaction of material needs, and the fulfillment of ourselves. He didn’t mean to live isolated, nor just to escape from the crowded society and enjoy the scenery, but to live completely and deeply, to gain the power of nature and also release the energy from his own. Thoreau wished to have direct experience of both object and nature, so that he could see himself in a broader life context.
Some people might think that to search the meaning of life and be introspective must go on a travel so that they have enough time to think and to refresh. However, both Emerson and Thoreau gave their words on this. Emerson tried to inspire his readers to forgo tours of the Continent and stay focused on the particularities of home, remarking, “…Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places.”
In “Self Reliance” Emerson wrote that “travel is a fool’s paradise,” and that it is more important and useful to change a person’s soul than to change one’s landscape. The “fool” who thought that his life would change after he went on travel to Europe did not work like what he was expecting. During the trip he was actually shocked and disappointed to discover, he packed his suitcase and left on arrival, however he is still in the same tedious company of himself. That all traveling, from Emerson’s point of view is just a consequence of his belief in the central of the self in all aspects, which is the depth and health of the spirit.
Thoreau followed with the similar view that “…it is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” He insisted that the most essential and valuable kind of travel can be done without someone leaving his or her hometown. It is the inner voyage of searching the soul. Although the content of the book sometimes gave readers confusion of whether Thoreau himself was escaping from human society and isolating himself in the pond, he was emphasizing the connection and interaction between the individual and society. The individual who he focused on was himself: “…A man can be lonely when surrounded by others if he does not feel real companionship with them.” Yet leaving modern society didn’t mean that he was just alone; what he was presenting is that Nature offers better society than humans do.
“Solitude”, in his opinion was not loneliness or isolation. It’s self communication, self awareness, and self introspection. Things combined with nature are always peaceful, strong, and infinite, which has the similarity to the power of human mind and instinct. Although nowadays, it seems hard to go back to the wildness and do exactly the same “adventure” as Thoreau did, people could offer themselves a period of time which only belongs to themselves, be in part of nature and feel it directly from their heart. Sometimes people’s anger comes from working hard but accomplishing little of significance, or the struggling between reality and dream. After introspecting their own interior world, people could figure out that it is crucial to live as an individual, and how to trace oneself with doing it while living in a highly developed society. Deficiency in self introspection can cause collapse but often people are too busy to see themselves. People can avoid the “things” which keep bothering us by renouncing too many desires for material needs. Humans are born with nothing and die with nothing; it is because of this that Thoreau constantly seeks to simplify his lifestyle.
By understanding the ideas delivered by Thoreau and Emerson on individual and spiritual importance, we can then focus on ourself, be more calm, and never to be in “need” of the companionship of others. We finally become aware that our life belongs to us.