Finally, I Read Thoreau’s “Walden”

In another time and if in the same place, Henry David Thoreau would have been a great family friend. So much of what he addresses in Walden resonates deeply with my dad and me. We frequently discuss the bizarre inconsistencies and illogical manners in much of our society (past and present), speculate the hows and whys as well as alternatives, and enjoy extensive hours sitting in our silence among the sounds of wild critters and the weather. Walden has given me ideas for how to get the deluge of information in my head into a pleasant and intellectual format in the physical world. That is what this book is: Thoreau writing his contemplation on human behavior and resident natural history.

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“Original title page of Walden featuring a picture drawn by Thoreau’s sister Sophia.” –Wikipedia

Why are philanthropists idolized more than other productive endeavors? After all, a Newfoundland dog can save you from your troubles if you are drowning or freezing.

Why dedicate years of monetary savings to take a train to your chosen destination when you can walk there without the years of savings, and meanwhile partake in the idiosyncrasies of the world along the journey?

Why stay locked in your house on a deep, snowy day when you have an appointment with a beech tree?

Thoreau brings up both “big” things and “little” things that mainstream society either avoids addressing or regards worthless because it does not add to a human’s prestige or pays the bills.

If you are the sort that never floated with the stream but instead investigated other shores or the depth of the river, this book will likely intrigue and flatter your mind.

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Modern Walden Pond…a very large pond, but Thoreau does clarify in the book that at the time no one was aware of any stream source or out source, so “pond” it is. (Photo Creative Commons)

Granted, I actually listened to Walden through the free (public domain) online audio book site LibriVox read by a lovely Canadian voice known as Gord Mackenzie, so when I heard something above the normal awesome in the reading, I had to transcribe the quotes.

There was a passage at the end of the first–and lengthy–chapter that really told me what I was getting into:

A man is not a good man to me if he should feed me when I’m starving or warm me if I should be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one. I can find you a Newfoundland dog that will do as much. Philanthropy is not love for one’s fellow man in the broadest sense.

and then:

I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who buy their lives and works are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are as it were his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick are but of humble use and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a man that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse. His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act but a constant superfluity which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. The philanthropist often–too often–surrounds mankind with a remembrance of his own cast-off griefs as an atmosphere and calls it sympathy.

Then later:

We should impart our courage and not our despair; our health and ease and not our disease.

Perhaps I should be curious that despite the eloquence of Thoreau’s prose when describing nature, I’m more fascinated with his perspective on human civilization.

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