What Thoreau Knew Walden and the Meaning of Voluntary
By: John Shepler
On his personal day of independence, July 4, 1845, Henry David
Thoreau moved into his one-room cabin, a home away from home
that he had built for himself on the shores of Walden Pond in
Concord, Massachusetts. He stayed there a little over two years,
living a life of voluntary simplicity and writing the books "A
Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" and "Walden."
When he left, he had done what he declared he was going to do...to
"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 did not die a wealthy man, although he
could have. He was a Harvard graduate. Had he so chosen, he could
have "fit in" with the prevailing cultures of business,
politics or higher education. He could have hitched his wagon
to the star of a traditional career and let it pull him comfortably
through life. Today that would be called "living the American
dream." But is it living deliberately?
More and more people today are beginning to wonder what they've
gotten themselves into. The cornucopia that is the second half
of the twentieth century offers us more and more and more, if
only we'll reach in and take it. Yet that horn of plenty is seldom
the horn of freedom. If you want more, you can have more, but
there is a price to be paid.
The price is a faster and faster existence to pay for and
use the riches that we've grabbed. Two working partners pursuing
promising careers with the ever so near carrots of greater responsibilities
and greater rewards may find themselves gasping for breath at
the end of the day. Even those on a bit slower track may find
themselves asking aloud "What am I doing with all this stuff,
and why am I working harder and harder to get more and more of
it? I'm not sure what I'm doing with half of it now."
So there is a movement afoot. It flies in the face of consumerism,
yuppyism and success as we've come to worship it. It's a bumper
sticker that goes on top of the one that says "he who dies
with the most toys, wins." It's something more along the
lines of "he or she who lives, wins."
It's called the simplicity movement, voluntary simplicity
or living simply. The practitioners might be called simplists.
There have always been some around. They are the ones who refuse
to live above their means. They avoid debt like a disease and
could care less what the Jones' think of them. They're not about
to keep up with anyone, because they're not focused on what others
have or are doing. They are pursuing something that is driving
them from inside.
The last time we really heard a lot about "alternative"
lifestyles was in the 1960's, when the hippie movement was the
prevailing counterculture, and flower-power was in full bloom.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, though, flower power has wilted
and long since blown away. The last couple of decades have been
about superachievement, overspending and upward mobility. Is
this simplicity movement just the predictable reverse swing of
What's seems different this time is that the people involved,
many in their twenties and thirties, are not driven by political
dissent, a romance with shirking off all responsibilities or
a flirtation with drugs. They are simply saying "I have
quite enough, thank you. Someone else please take a turn."
We've been raised to believe that you must go as far as you
possibly can in life, and that distance is measured by how busy
you are, how hard you work and how much you've accumulated. This
is still a compelling dream for many who are happy to buy in
and do what it takes to maintain the upgradeable lifestyle. But
now there is also a new alternative lifestyle emerging that neither
rejects the affordable luxuries of life nor yearns for more.
It is a satisfaction with less, in the sense that less of one
thing, pressure, intensity, busyness or affluence means a trade
for something else, such as self-determination, personal satisfaction,
spiritual fulfillment or other things not valued so highly on
the trading floor.
Thoreau wasn't abandoning his neighbors when he moved into
the cabin at Walden Pond. He went there to grieve the untimely
death of his brother, John Jr., who contracted lockjaw from a
dirty razor. Henry David's first book was meant to be his tribute
to their lives together. He valued that time of solitude and
the process of working through his thoughts on life more than
what else he could have been doing. He stayed to explain it all
in his second book, "Walden."
There are choices available in life to each of us. They come
time and time again. Picking one path does not mean staying that
path forever, or that one way is necessarily better than another.
For some it is the power life. For others the acceptance of simplicity
as a virtuous way of living comes as a welcome relief.
Books of Interest
Walden Or, Life in the Woods And, on the Duty of Civil
Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, Peter Miller and Henry
Thoreau Walden. Thoreau, a sturdy individualist and nature lover,
lived a spare existence in a wooden hut on the edge of Walden
Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, from 1845 to 1847. "Walden"
is a record of his experiment in a simple life and his contemplation
of the wonders of nature and the ways of man. This book includes
the famous essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, "
a selection of his poetry and a new introduction by W.S. Merwin.
Civil Disobedience, and Other Essays by Henry David
Thoreau. Philosopher, naturalist, poet and rugged individualist,
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) has inspired generations of readers
to think for themselves, to follow the dictates of their own
conscience and to make an art of their lives. This representative
sampling of his thought includes five of his most frequently
cited and read essays: 'Civil Disobedience, ' his most powerful
and influential political essay, exalts the law of conscience
over civil law.
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Thoreau Simplify Print - The image of Henry David Throeau with the word "simplify," his philosophy. Get your copy now.