Thoreau’s truth


Walden is convincing because the vivid details of the woods, the pond, and the seasons are used as a metaphor of his vision of a good life.

Walden and Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau, first published 1854 and 1849, Penguin Classics, Special Indian Price, Rs. 250. Ralph Emerson’s essay, Society and Solitude from Complete Essays and Other Writings.

Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplify, simplify, simplify...

I never found a companion so companionable as solitude.

There are three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.

Henry Thoreau: Walden and Civil Disobedience

Gandhiji clearly shared with Thoreau that each generation must discover the world through its own eyes rather than through the eyes of previous generations. But in rejecting the “dead hand of the past” Thoreau had warned that every individual “be very careful to find out and pursue (Truth and self realisation) his own way”, that could only come through solitude, away from the madding crowd. If the narrator of Walden stands for anything, it is as an example of “the practicality of virtue” which had the power to awaken people from the torpid lives of expediency and slavish materialism. Thoreau’s impact on Gandhiji’s life and philosophy was profound and much of it came from his reading of Walden, as also the New Testament, Tolstoy and, of course, the Gita.

Thoreau’s writings come to over 20 volumes but it is to Walden that we need to turn to here because a great deal of the philosophy of Civil Disobedience or non-violent resistance (or Satyagraha) can be traced back to the ideas of this book. The story goes that on July 4, 1845, when many Americans waved miniature flags and bells in honour of their country’s independence, Thoreau moved out of his parent’s home to a log cabin beside Walden Pond to declare his own independence. But even as he disentangled himself from worldly affairs, his solitary musings resulted in a series of short essays where he told his readers that if they wanted to live “simply and wisely” they need to simplify and simplify. In Thoreau’s mind, individual discipline, intellectual growth, and spiritual development were the only true methods of reform, and “true reform was interior, private, which meant discovering the divinity within one’s self.”

Reflections on life

Walden is a small book of 17 essays with a Conclusion, some of which are reflections on Economy, Readings, Sounds, Solitude, Visitors, Higher Laws, Winter Animals, The Pond in Winter, and Spring. These essays are filled with quotations and a steady stream of discussions on literature, philosophy, religion, history and other topics. But the essays were more a product of his readings and reflections rather than his experiences which were limited because he confined himself between July 1845 to September 1847 to the Walden Pond.

But Walden’s relevance today is much more than an account of a life in the woods; it is appealing and convincing because the vivid details of the woods, the pond, and the seasons are used as a metaphor of his vision of a good life. Also, although Thoreau drew heavily from the ideas of his contemporary Ralph Emerson’s essay on Society and Solitude, he adapted it to his own ways of thinking and feeling. Thoreau insisted that you “figure it out” yourself and this could only be done in solitude, by being alone with yourself.

Perhaps the great relevance of Walden lies in the distinction that Thoreau makes between “solitude” and “loneliness”. Many of us confuse that the two are one and the same, that “solitude” is the flip side of “loneliness”. Thoreau says they are not, though not in so many words. What he says is this: “In solitude, I am by myself together with my inner Self and therefore two-in-one; in loneliness, I am actually one, deserted by all others.” In solitude therefore a dialogue is possible between me and myself, as it were, as is the dialogue between quotation marks in all Walden’s essays. True understanding (call it the kingdom of God, if you like) will come from within and for this you need to be left alone.

Simple truths

Simplicity; Purity; Clarity of line is what has attracted thousands of readers to Walden. Or to put it in the words of Hamlet’s advice to the players: hold the mirror up to nature, don’t saw your hand or tear a passion to tatters but even more importantly, “Be not too tame either.” Just be true to yourself. It is in the opening essays, “Economy and Where I Lived”, and “What I Lived For” that the tone is set for all the subsequent chapters. For Thoreau, the cost of a thing was to be measured by how much life he had to give for it, which is a sensible rate of exchange by any standard. Consequently, he was content to live simply and modestly because he believed that freedom meant learning to do without the trappings of a more complicated life. Hence, his exhortation, “simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Thoreau’s concluding essay, “Civil Disobedience”, in which he expressed his antislavery and antiwar sentiments and his insistence on living a life of principle has influenced nonviolent resistance movements worldwide. Here he asks the basic question whether we should be content to obey unjust laws or whether we should endeavour to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or we should transgress them at once? Gandhiji riposte was simple: “An unjust law itself was a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so.”