Thoreau’s Journey: Problem, Need, Lifestyle, and Revelation
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Walden; Or, Life In The Woods is a self-experiment that provides an ideal opportunity to evaluate the author’s philosophy. The book is an account of Henry David Thoreau’s journey of self-discovery as he attempts to live a life of simplicity and self-reliance in the woods of Massachusetts. His exploration of his two years and two months living in a cabin near Walden Pond is considered a seminal work of early American transcendentalism. Thoreau never explicitly reveals the spiritual truth at the end of his journey. Still, a discerning Christian reader can note the main transcendental themes and ideals that Thoreau demonstrates, separating that which should be applauded from that which should be rejected.
Thoreau sees mankind’s self-alienation as the fundamental problem in society. In the opening chapter of the book, “Economy,” Thoreau explains that mankind has a few fundamental needs: food, shelter, fuel, and clothing. Earliest man used these as tools for his own survival. But as these needs became institutionalized, man became a slave to them. Thoreau sees society as a corrupting power, forcing “the mass of men [to] lead lives of quiet desperation.”
The expectations to own a house, to wear fancy clothing, and to fit in with the rest of society condemn mankind to a life of constant toil. The end result is a kind of stupor. Millions of men are awake enough only to work. Fewer still are awake enough to think. Only a few, says Thoreau, are fully awake. According to Thoreau, man has sacrificed his greatest asset, his individuality, for the baubles and trinkets civilization offers.
Mankind does not realize he is a slave because of the illusion of progress. Thoreau observes that mankind has constructed trains that run on a rigid sched...
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...nd meditation can reverse the irreparable damage of the Fall. God, not man, is the source of both redemption and truth, and rejecting this truth can only end in disaster.
Through this account of his spiritual experiment and journey, Thoreau demonstrates key transcendentalist themes. Beginning by pointing out the problem of self-alienation, Thoreau expresses the need for spiritual re-awakening. Through the pursuit of solitude, simplicity, and introspection, his journey leads him to discovery of the divine in himself and the world around him. While his ultimate solution must be rejected by Christians, his candid observations of the human condition are chilling. Walden stands as a beautiful but tragic monument to the phenomenon of American transcendentalism.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910).