Think of Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, the Buddhist and Tibetan monks, the simple lives of the Benedictine monks, Mother Theresa, and others throughout history, whose eschewing of material goods and objects, focusing on spirit and the simple life, was glorified, and think of those who were considered enlightened. Thoreau is considered part of this non-materialistic movement, which inspired Beatniks and hippies of the 1950s and 60s, as well as others, to try to simplify their lives, live life for the moment and to the fullest, and to embrace the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movements, as well as other causes. Ironically, in the 1960s, many of those at the forefront of this rebellious movement were college students of wealthy families, denying the lifestyle they grew up in, preferring rural communes, living in poverty, elevating the nomadic life, even sharing simple flats in Haight Ashbury with hordes of others who hung out during the “free love” generation. Paticia Hearst comes to mind, with her embracing of the Symbionese Liberation Army. So does Charles Manson. But these are extreme negative cases. Many of these people are running our corporations right about now, and they have inherited their parents’ opulence and wealth, their businesses, and their positions, despite their years of protest and rebellion. They have become part of the “establishment” and some of their actions try to show that they are not. A few of them are eking out a living in the foothills of California, driving old cars, growing their crops, and still living in the past, a simple life. Their hair is long, their cars are beat up, and they don’t care, as there are enough of them to find community. In our media-run culture, we still seem to glorify the lives of the poor, elevate that lifestyle to the level of godliness and purity (the new immigration views?), celebrate the street life of the gangsta or fallen petty criminal or wayward serial killer as something short of a new romanticism. We may perceive the homeless people as being free, innocent souls done wrong by society. Sometimes, don’t we envy the simplistic life, as we think others lead it, as ours is so fraught with work, boredom, repetition, and responsibility? Theirs is the carefree life of free will and spontaneous action. Or so it seems.
There have been other movements in history that embraced a pastoral life--when the complexities of life and opulence of life produced great stress. The medieval Tales of the Decameron (Italian) celebrate rural stories of the pastoral--when the more wealthy fled to the rural hills in search of a simpler life, when the shepherd life was glorified and elevated. Can you think of any other movements when people sought a simpler, better life? Think of the westward movement in the U.S. Yes, greed for gold was there, fueling that drive for an easier life, a more comfortable life. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Thoreau had a hand in making people think, but not so much at the time he wrote. At the time, they thought he was a bum and learned idiot—they dismissed him as a leech, living off of friends and family. Even though Emerson brought in people by the hundreds to his lectures, equivalent to today’s small rock concert, his friend Thoreau was more reclusive. Not until much later, when college students in the 1950s and 60s were reading material by Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and even the reclusive poet Dickinson, whose new volume of poetry came out which showed her poems in their original, innovative genius and form, were people saying, “Far out, man. This is groovy stuff.” Their eyes were open. But to what? You decide. Take Thoreau’s work and apply it to your life as you wish. He was well-read, and a great thinker. Of course, he had plenty of time to think since he did not have to work. He makes some good points about that as you groan over the work load, and as I groan, too. There are good words in his writings, as well as great philosophy and irony. Take from the reading what you need and what you can use.
When you respond to these quotations, you need to tie the maxim, aphorism, or saying to your thoughts, your life, your experience. Explain what Thoreau means by the quotation, agree or disagree, and then explain what you mean and why you agree or disagree, using examples and support from your experience. Do not simply say, “I agree with Thoreau because he was right…” Too simplistic, yes? Get philosophical and prolific yourself. You are more than capable. All the wisdom of your 16+ years are at your fingertips. You know quite a lot about how the world works. Now is the time to reflect on that. Talk about it to friends. Discuss with parents. Think it over. Jot down thoughts on napkins. Then write.
Respond to those you find inspiring. We will talk about these, first. Find 5 more from pp. 14-30 that you could sink your teeth into. Add them to this paper. I wonder what Thoreau would think of the corporate world today? What would he say about Bill Gates? The Ford Corporation? Enron? The State of California? Hmmm…What does he say about the clothing factories? About clothes, in general? I wonder what he would say about designer fashions now? How would you respond to his comments, I wonder?
Walden, pp. 1-12
1. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” (5)
2. Confucius said, “To know that we know what we know, and that we cannot know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” (8)
3. “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.” (
4. “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.” (Thoreau 3)
5. On working all one’s life:
“But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moths and rust will corrupt, and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it.” (Thoreau 3)
6. “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. (10)
Some of Thoreau’s other great quotations:
Thoreau’s opinion of fashion: _______________________________(fill in a well-known designer) His opinion would be:______________________________________________