Walking with Thoreau

2012-07-19

Apparently it was 170 years ago today (on July 19, 1842) that Henry David Thoreau took a walk to Wachusett. Over the last few days I've been dipping into that essay on my phone while I'm out and about, which seems to be an appropriately mobile way to read it.

Having recently finished writing the first draft of a dialogue on Epicurus, reading Thoreau has me thinking about another in my projected series of books on happiness. I conceive of this one as "walking with Thoreau": a mental travelogue providing a tour of Thoreau's essays, poems, the 7000 pages of his journal, and his experiment in living at Walden Pond. Just as an exchange of letters feels right for exploring Epicurus, so a journal feels right for exploring Thoreau. (I'm even imagining a cycle of philosophical poems to explore Nietzsche -- "Songs of Zarathustra", anyone?)

I like how Thoreau combines the earthly with the philosophical:

The mower in the adjacent meadow could not tell us the name of the brook on whose banks we had rested, or whether it had any, but his younger companion, perhaps his brother, knew that it was Great Brook. Though they stood very near together in the field, the things they knew were very far apart; nor did they suspect each other's reserved knowledge, till the stranger came by. In Bolton, while we rested on the rails of a cottage fence, the strains of music which issued from within, probably in compliment to us, sojourners, reminded us that thus far men were fed by the accustomed pleasures. So soon did we, wayfarers, begin to learn that man's life is rounded with the same few facts, the same simple relations everywhere, and it is vain to travel to find it new.

[...]

Leaving the Nashua, we changed our route a little, and arrived at Stillriver Village, in the western part of Harvard, just as the sun was setting. From this place, which lies to the northward, upon the western slope of the same range of hills on which we had spent the noon before, in the adjacent town, the prospect is beautiful, and the grandeur of the mountain outlines unsurpassed. There was such a repose and quiet here at this hour, as if the very hill-sides were enjoying the scene, and we passed slowly along, looking back over the country we had traversed, and listening to the evening song of the robin, we could not help contrasting the equanimity of nature with the bustle and impatience of man. His words and actions presume always a crisis near at hand, but she is forever silent and unpretending.

It is such juxtapositions that I would like to bring forth in a Thoreauvian journal, since I hold that at its best philosophy consists in the love and practice of wisdom, and thus is essentially worldly.


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