The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Sixteen: Simplicity (December 7)

Previous: Chapter Fifteen: Storing

Thoreau emphasized over and over the importance of simplicity: having few wants, focusing on your true needs, being earnest and sincere, concentrating on the essential laws of existence, magnanimously accepting what nature has given you. Yet simplicity is not an end itself, but always a way of clearing the land for engaging in some absorbing employment on your higher ground, for building up an inner wealth of spiritual insight, for investing in your higher self and letting your capital be purity, serenity, and contentment.

These serene moments are merely a transient realization of what might be the whole tenor of your life. The highest development and employment is simplicity through wisdom and the cultivation of the highest faculties. If yours is an ant-like existence of working for common luxuries and superficial refinements, or even if you live for knowledge and culture as conventionally defined, you have no time to experience profound thoughts and inward complexity. Outward complexity is enslavement to trivial desires, whereas voluntary simplicity is freedom for pursuing a better character and a higher, nobler life.

Attending overmuch to routines, conventions, manners, events, and other trivialities dissipates and impoverishes the mind, robs you of strength for things of ageless importance, and keeps you from the unfolding of your higher self. Life is frittered away on a thousand details and distractions, on luxury and heedless expense of time; this is the place to exercise a rigid economy and an honesty and elevation of purpose, so that you concentrate your energies on your two or three pursuits of greatest value, or ply a single heavenly trade with the celestial empire. Thus can you become a master workman of the art of life.

This stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life, this seeming poverty of excitements and experiences, this withdrawal from human society and worldly concerns, this pruning of your hopes to the bare essentials, is in fact a concentration of strength and energy and flavor that fits you for spiritual abundance and a higher society — the sweet friendship of the seasons, the most innocent and divinely encouraging society in every natural object and in universal nature. For heaven is under our feet is well as over our heads, and can be found in simple and homely things, in the most common events, in the everyday phenomena of nature. When the questions to be decided are as simple as how to do your work and live your daily life, then you realize that your natural wants are easily and gracefully satisfied.

According to Thoreau, most people satisfy their wants in a complicated, indirect, artificial way; trading their time for money and their money for the goods they need, they postpone instant life and miss out on the inexpressible joy that is the reward of satisfying their wants simply, directly, and truly. The real arts of life — such as growing and cooking your food, collecting your fuel, building and maintaining your shelter, making your tools, conveying yourself under your own power, and, when temperately pursued, getting the means of your living — are simultaneously your work and your highest pleasure. The warmth of life is not so much in having the necessities as in getting them through simple, honest, independent labor.

Few people live this way today, as modern life rushes headlong in ever more complex directions. Indeed, Thoreau is commonly thought of as an atavistic inhabitant of a far northern wilderness, who left behind all human society (consistent with the ancient Indian ideal of sannyasa or renunciation).

Yet even Thoreau did not live most of his life this way; after his two years at Walden Pond he returned to live with his parents and sisters, and often helped with the family's pencil-making company. Despite his engagement in the active business of life, he felt that it furnished nothing on which the eye of reason could rest — and that a simple, wholesome, true relation to nature grants you health and happiness and inspiration and a hundred other far finer and nobler fruits than the mere products of human enterprise.

This is why he thought that his true calling was to explore the natural environment around Concord, to earnestly educate himself in that economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy, and to write the poem of his life so well that it would be a source of inspiration to future generations.

Next: Chapter Seventeen: Bud

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