The Upland Farm

Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life

by Peter Saint-Andre

Chapter Eighteen: Offering (January 6)

Previous: Chapter Seventeen: Bud

Just as the Bhagavad-Gita emphasized devotional service and an offering of yourself to what is highest and best, so Thoreau was devoted to the discovery of divinity in nature, in other people, and in himself. This reverential attitude towards life, reached through a long process of spiritual maturation, results in a beautiful life and a transparent character. It is essentially similar to the bhakti yoga of Yogic philosophy — the discipline of devotion.

Yet Thoreau did not believe in completely selfless duty or action without recompense, any more than he believed in selling your soul for external things and worldly success. Instead, he believed that there is a certain volatile and ethereal quality which represents your highest value, which is too pure to have a purely market value, which cannot be bought and sold like the grossest groceries. The richest gifts you can bestow are the least marketable by conventional standards; the best of your wares are a real and earnest life, a sincerity and plainness in how you live, and a spending of your life energy on higher works. If you follow your genius and cultivate the best within you, you can raise a crop which you need not bring down to sell at a lowland market, but which you can barter for the heavenly products of the celestial empire.

To create these heavenly products, is it necessary to believe in a traditional god? Although Thoreau was not a churchgoing person, he saw divinity within and behind all of nature. At the end of his life, one of his aunts asked him if he had made his peace with god, to which he replied: "I did not know that we had ever quarreled." Perhaps Thoreau's pantheism and his faith in the seeds of goodness within each human being lead essentially in the same direction as Jesus when he said that the kingdom of god is within you.

Thoreau argues that it is a vulgar error to suppose that you can taste the higher flavor of life without having done the hard, sometimes lonely work of preparing, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and storing. Making a free offering of your work and energy leads to the rarest success: supporting simultaneously both your body and your essence. This is not only a transcendent use but also a complete enjoyment, for the spirit with which you do something determines whether it is a truly fruitful experience and whether it contributes to your development as a human being. Achieving a harmony of your work and your life makes you fully alive and gives your days an inexpressible satisfaction, a sense of elevation and expansion, a feeling of participation in that which is immortal.

In Walden, Thoreau speaks of so loving wisdom that you live according to its dictates: maintaining yourself by honest means; living and thinking independently; pursuing magnanimity on a higher plane of life; making and remaking an inner world by turning and returning to what you essentially are; weighing and settling and gravitating toward that which most strongly and rightfully attracts you; traveling the path that only you can travel; being resolutely and faithfully what you are; loving your life so deeply that you meet it and live it every day; knowing that the goal of your existence is distant and upward and worthy of all your life's efforts to achieve.

Treating your life as an offering to what is best and highest is to make your life a true sacrament, a dear and cherished object that you constantly improve. Like the artist of Kouroo at the end of Walden, you too can find life everlasting and perennial youth through the polished purity of your soul and your works, from singleness of purpose and resolution toward a more transcendent ideal.

Even at the end of life, dawn breaks and the sun rises. The springtime of the day merely presages the perfect summer life to which you can aspire in your highest hour, which you can cultivate at your upland farm; for human beings can also rise to a beautiful and winged life, and you too can become what you are, having learned what that is.


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