HENRY DAVID THOREAU
—Prophet of Silence, Simplicity and Solitude
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Today, 150 years after his passing, Henry David Thoreau still dares us to shred the scripts inflicted upon us by society and live lives of integrity and self-actualization. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps he hears a different drummer,” he tells us. Thoreau, the ultimate individualist, excoriated the practical mediocrity and acquisitiveness of his society, much as he attacked the cruelty of slavery and an unjust war.
The perception of Thoreau as an antisocial hermit is in error. His sojourn in his cabin alongside Walden Pond lasted two years and two months, an experiment in reducing life to the basics, so as to arrive at a deeper sense of self and of man’s place in the universe. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, to live and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
He lists those essentials as food, shelter, clothing and fuel, branding all else as luxuries that hinder the elevation of mankind. He once collected three pieces of limestone, later throwing them out in disgust when he learned that they needed to be dusted every week. “Our life,” he says, “is frittered away by detail.”
There are few more public enterprises than publication, and Thoreau was very much a public man. His journals fill more than thirty volumes. His essay “On Civil Disobedience” exerted a powerful influence upon Tolstoy, Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thoreau was a passionate ecologist, pleading, “To preserve wild animals implies generally the creation of a forest for them to dwell in.”
Disdaining most possessions, he observes that the cost of a thing is the amount of life one is required to exchange for it. “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” he commands, and then warns, “Avoid all enterprises that require new clothes.”
Questioning society’s presumptions, he tells us, “The greater part 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?”
He praises solitude, arguing, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” He admonishes our noise-addicted times with, “Silence is the universal refuge, and the sequel to all dull discourses and foolish acts, “adding that an orator is never so eloquent as when most silent.
His love of nature is perhaps best exhibited in such sentences as, “I rejoice that there are owls,” and, “I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows.”
Considering our own age, Thoreau seems almost clairvoyant when he accuses, “It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follows.”
The peaceful naturalist was also a fiery abolitionist speaker and opponent of the Mexican War, which he labeled an act of aggression against a militarily weaker neighbor. He chose jail rather than pay taxes to support such unjust causes. His earlier pacifism vanishes in his ardent defense of John Brown, condemned to death for arming slaves and fomenting rebellion.
I first met Thoreau in the pages of a high school literature text when I was a quietly rebellious 17-year old underachiever. He spoke to me as no one up to that time had. He continues to challenge and inspire to this day.
In our age of angst and anxiety, characterized by the orgiastic frenzy of Black Friday, with Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the Real Housewives of Long Island, Beverly Hills, Nashville or Purgatory, society could well profit from the wise words of the Sage of Concord.
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