Reading Response: Thoreau
Thoreau's success as a teacher comes both from satirizing effectively the kinds of values that lead people away from finding the divine in the everyday and in his presentation of the quality of life thereby lost. He has created a spiritual text that we can meditate on to help us stay focused on living deeply.
13 September 2005
Reading Response: Thoreau
The excerpt from Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” can be considered a “practice” of Emerson's Transcendentalist theories, or more specifically, of Emerson's message that the divine can be found everywhere: “The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure, that it is profane to seek to interpose helps” (“Self-Reliance” 1629). In addition to repeating this message, e.g., “God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages” (1761), Thoreau in his narrative provides an example of contact with what some philosophers (e.g., Ken Wilber) call “the Witness,” and what Emerson describes as “absorb[ing] past and future into the present hour. . . All things are dissolved to their centre by their cause, and, in the universal miracle, petty and particular miracles disappear” (“Self-Reliance” 1629). These themes, finding the divine and potential for Witness-union everywhere as well as the didactic purpose of helping others to do the same, following Wordsworth:
of Nature, we to them will speak
A lasting inspiration, sanctified
By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved
Others will love, and we will teach them how,
Instruct them how the mind of Man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above this Frame of things
(Which 'mid all revolutions in the hopes
And fears of Men doth still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of quality and fabric more divine.
can be found throughout the Walden excerpt. Thoreau's contribution to these themes is that he presents them powerfully and memorably—in a manner that may be more effective for present-day readers than the work of other Romantic writers. Thoreau teaches by his example: he manifests his philosophy both in the nature of his experiment and in the quality and layered meaning of his writing about it. His success as a teacher comes both from satirizing effectively the kinds of values that lead people away from finding the divine in the everyday and in his presentation of the quality of life thereby lost. He has created a spiritual text that we can meditate on to help us stay focused on living deeply.
In particular, Thoreau presents a different and memorable concept of ownership: we learn how the poet milks the farm leaving the farmer “only the skimmed milk.” Subverting the mortgage, he rhapsodizes on his simple, unchinked shelter, “Olympus is but the outside of the earth every where.” He finds the fantastic in the common: mists withdraw from the pond “like ghosts”; his shelter, “a mile from any neighbor,” is as remote as behind a constellation; morning bathing in the pond is a religious exercise; and the humming of a mosquito moves him as the verse of Homer. He finds Witness-union in the smallest well: the earth is floated. Then he is emphatically didactic: “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake”; it is shaping our attitude, our manner of experiencing that is “the highest of the arts.” These exhortations are made non-empty by following them with his intense statement of how he sought to live the way he is telling us to. The imagery with which he illustrates the principle “simplicity” is not forgettable: “An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers . . . keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” He then subverts the value of technological progress and news. He relates a parable to illustrate how our divine nature has been hidden from us: God “culminates in the present moment”; “Brahma” is what we are, but petty fears, pleasures, tradition, and delusions hide this reality from us. His images of reality being covered by muck and Ulysses being tied to the mast illustrate the difficulty of experiencing reality. Finally, he returns to the Witness, an awareness that exists outside time: the thin current of time “slides away, but eternity remains.” He digs for it with his mind, not his hands. Thoreau's striking imagery, clearness of purpose, and the multiple levels on which he demonstrates this purpose help his readers change their lives to better experience the divine in the everyday.
Wilber, Ken. “Sunday, April 27.” One Taste. Boston: Shambhala, 2000. 80-82. Partial Rpt. in ---. “So Who Are You?” Ken Wilber Online. Boston: Shambhala, 1999. 13 Sept. 2005 <http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/ontast_wharyo.cfm/>
---. “Experiential, Intellectual, and Spiritual.” The Essential Ken Wilber: An Introductory Reader. Boston: Shambhala, 1998. 85-87. Rpt. in Leath, Colin. “Wed 27 Mar 2002 19:44.” experienceart. 27 Mar. 2002. 13 Sept. 2005 <http://purl.oclc.org/net/ea/cleath/d/2002-03-27-1944>
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude. 1805. Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. M. H. Abrams. 7th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 2000. ????-???? Also at <http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww300.html> 444-454