Henry David Thoreau: Walden

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During a writing course I attended the class was encouraged to give Henry David Thoreau a chance, and I set my mind to do so, but it did not take long to realize that may be a little more difficult than first imagined. Within the first several pages I got the impression that Thoreau was stuck on himself, captivated by his own voice, and yet, he seemingly contradicts himself more than the Emerson piece we dealt with earlier. For instance, he boasts about building his own cabin in the woods (a mere mile from his neighbors) and diligently surviving two years from the toil of his hands and the sweat of his brow, then he lambasts first the farmers for equal diligence in maintaining a plot of land for their homes, what he calls “a fool’s life” (7), then he targets the equally “foolish” strivings of most men, who, in his eyes, toil religiously with nothing to show for it. He says the “finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (7).

Thoreau did make one statement early on that was rather profound. He said, “It is hard to have a southern overseer (referring to slave masters); worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” But then, just when I wanted to give him another chance to impress me, he waxes poetic, but without common sense. He begins with the following statement: “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof” (9). And he follows that with the adage “what’s true today may prove false tomorrow” (9), which is acceptable, but the use of “no” in the former statement stipulates an all-inclusive reality that inevitably proves the contention false, since various truths, once discovered, have been and still are handed down from generation-to-generation.

Furthermore, in an attempt to confirm his view, Thoreau seemingly digs himself a deeper ideological grave. He contends “old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new” (9), and claims, “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 any seniors” (9). And he further states that they can never tell him anything of purpose.

I say that he who has not, does not, and cannot learn anything from others, especially elders, is a fool by all relevant standards. But I will continue through the text with the hope of finding something redemptive along the way. However, I do find that I enjoy reading Thoreau more when I cease efforts to ascertain his personal beliefs and simply enjoy his writing style and how he represents his Walden experiences. For instance, after buying a shanty for boards he recalls passing the family as they were leaving and says, “One large bundle held their all, — bed, coffee-mill, looking-glass, hens, — all but the cat, she took to the woods and became a wild cat, and, as I learned afterward, trod in a trap set for woodchucks, and so became a dead cat at last” (33). And when speaking of a neighbor visiting, Thoreau writes, “He was there to represent spectatordom, and help make this seemingly insignificant event one with the removal of the gods of Troy” (33). And I found his admiration of the cellar, the longest lasting section of the home in his eyes, better than the house above it oddly interesting. He states, “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” (34); which equally embodies the nature aspect he is expounding on.

Inevitably, I found Walden fairly enjoyable to read only after I skimmed over any of his futile attempts to be philosophical.


Thoreau’s Biblical References

The Bible is a unique text. It tells the reader they either accept it as the living word of God, or they reject it: there is no middle ground. And yet, a slew of critical thinkers throughout the ages continue to pick and choose what they will accept or reject from its pages. And this essay will not attempt to prove, in a few pages, whether the Bible is or isn’t divinely inspired; it will simply show how Henry David Thoreau is one of the critical thinkers who chose to utilize biblical passages as evidence to support certain pros and cons of his alternative ideology.

Some critical thinkers attempt to retain the concept of God within the biblical text, while down playing the role of the Trinity: specifically the role of Jesus as the only begotten son of God. Ralph Waldo Emerson appears to fall into the believers of God sans Christ: the divinity of Christ. Thoreau, on the other hand, belongs to a different group of thinkers who profess the classification of “God,” but without association to any solitary entity: seeing god in nature, in man, but not a personified character or being, simply a force with which to attribute the creative energy. And yet, while professing such a belief, Thoreau, like many alternative thinkers before and since, opts to use the Bible for both pros and cons with regard to explanations of his own contentions.

The average individual in America cannot read Walden without noticing the text is inundated with biblical references, and an even greater number of biblical symbols. There are seven full or partial biblical passages within the first fifty pages of the book: from the use of Matthew 6:19 to John 5:8. But then the passages cease for nearly a hundred pages, though the biblical symbols continue throughout the text. And the final eighty-plus pages see nearly double the biblical passages, twelve: from the use of Ecclesiastes 12:1 to the final reference of Ecclesiastes 9:4. And some of the main symbols eluded to throughout the text include the following: water as baptism, cleansing, renewal or rebirth; omnipresence in the symbol of eyes, overseeing, reflections, illumination, etc, along with the sky, birds, air, and other terms in connection to heaven or the heavenlies. There are also direct symbols, such as swaddling and Creator.

The polarity issue attaches itself to the biblical passages and symbols. For instance, Thoreau proclaims “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads;” yet, on the following page he states, “They give up their watery ghosts, like a mortal translated before his time to the thin air of heaven;” all of which contradicts another claim where he says thoughts of heaven are foolish. Likewise, Thoreau refers to Matthew 6:19 which state the following:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.

The author uses it to emphasize his belief that man labors under a mistake or misconception. He claims, “The better part of man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.” And yet, he specifically calls the Bible “an old book,” in a demeaning fashion. And within a couple more pages Thoreau lambasts all things old, from previous generations, claiming, in fact, to have never learned anything from an elder. And yet, he continues to use that “old” book in an effort to strengthen his contentions throughout the text.

Polarity, complexity, opposites: a person might conclude the apparent contradictions weaken Thoreau’s contentions. Another person may see it as evidence for his contentions: nature, ecology, culture, the body and soul all intertwined. And the biblical symbols and stories were solidified in the culture of his day – and still are to varying degrees – and the culture is part of the ecology in Thoreau’s contentions; thus, a part of nature, and the body and soul, and, inevitably, that makes it all acceptable to use when talking to the masses (or anyone). As long as Thoreau believes the Bible has no divine attachment it is acceptable to use as part of the culture/ecology/nature to prove any point he deems relevant. However, if he attributes any form of divinity or divine nature to the Bible, even with respect to his nature-god assumption, his contentions immediately fail: for the obvious reasons. The primary reason it would fail is that any belief that accepts a divine attribute in an intelligent Creator must assume that any Creator who can create not only living creatures but intelligent beings would have the ability to communicate with those creations in some form. Thus, with that fact established, than no other god could be the god of the Bible, except God, who is claimed in the Bible, because no other god would create or inspire the Bible, or any other form of communication, with its creations that would promote a false god. Therefore, any critical thinkers like Thoreau, as well as those like Emerson who claim some belief in a divine god, show by their actions that they do not truly believe in a divine or supernatural nature attached to the biblical God, or they would need to accept it as a divine word inspired by the same God. After all, there are only two other alternatives: a belief in no intelligent god, or a belief in a bumbling god that cannot communicate with its “intelligent” creations. I just find it interesting that many notable thinkers try to remove divinity from an intelligent god, or attribute divinity to a non-intelligent force. And yet, they continue to use the Bible, which professes the God they removed the divine nature from, as a means to prove the pros and cons of their beliefs.

(©  JW Thomas)