For reference – notes on SR.
Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” teaches us to trust ourselves. By ourselves, we have unique voices and opinions, which society shuts down as soon as we confront other people and the group. Society’s primary concern is creating wealth and status, while the individual’s concern is self-expression and fulfillment. We want to take life slow, savor every moment, express ourselves, and explore many talents and skills. Society wants us to be big shots, put all our education towards one career, weed out our competitors to become successful, and make more money than we could ever need. But since society’s goal’s are so engrained inside us, we must learn to trust our own instincts as to what society tells us.
Emerson states that in solitude, individuals have voices, “which grow faint and inaudible as we enter the world.” Some of these thoughts and opinions that people come up with in solitude might cause fear when presented to society. Since society is such a delicate structure based on fear of chaos, any novel voice will make the person who spoke it become “the other.” Fear of alienation prevents voices from leaving solitude into the realm of society.
Emerson states that individuals who work hard and pursue fulfillment should not be proud of the possessions they acquired. He says, “a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, ashamed of what he has, out of respect for his own being,” meaning that acquiring property is just an accident. If you trust yourself and work towards the proper development of yourself by discovery of your innermost talents, then you should not accept society’s false reward of property. An ordinary person doing his best work is just as valuable as the “great” lives of kings and royalty. The greatest reward is knowing that you have found your own unique self, and fully trust it.
Fulfillment verses success, self expression verses conformity, and solitude verses the group are important factors to distinguish. Emerson in “Self-Reliance” is not advocating staying in solitude, because humans are social beings. Rather he wants us to discover ourselves away from society, and then confront society as our fulfilled and cultivated selfs. In reality, the wealth power structure of society is just a response to fear of our chaotic world, and if we just embrace this chaos, we might be more fulfilled, happy people. Trust yourself. Learn to let go.
The Value of Simplicity
Simplicity is more than a mode of life for Thoreau; it is a philosophical ideal as well. In his “Economy” chapter, Thoreau asserts that a feeling of dissatisfaction with one’s possessions can be resolved in two ways: one may acquire more, or reduce one’s desires. Thoreau looks around at his fellow Concord residents and finds them taking the first path, devoting their energies to making mortgage payments and buying the latest fashions. He prefers to take the second path of radically minimizing his consumer activity. Thoreau patches his clothes instead of buying new ones and dispenses with all accessories he finds unnecessary. For Thoreau, anything more than what is useful is not just an extravagance, but a real impediment and disadvantage. He builds his own shack instead of getting a bank loan to buy one, and enjoys the leisure time that he can afford by renouncing larger expenditures. Ironically, he points out, those who pursue more impressive possessions actually have fewer possessions than he does, since he owns his house outright, while theirs are technically held by mortgage companies. He argues that the simplification of one’s lifestyle does not hinder such pleasures as owning one’s residence, but on the contrary, facilitates them.
Another irony of Thoreau’s simplification campaign is that his literary style, while concise, is far from simple. It contains witticisms, double meanings, and puns that are not at all the kind of New England deadpan literalism that might pass for literary simplicity. Despite its minimalist message, Walden is an elevated text that would have been much more accessible to educated city-dwellers than to the predominantly uneducated country-dwellers.
The Illusion of Progress
Living in a culture fascinated by the idea of progress represented by technological, economic, and territorial advances, Thoreau is stubbornly skeptical of the idea that any outward improvement of life can bring the inner peace and contentment he craves. In an era of enormous capitalist expansion, Thoreau is doggedly anti-consumption, and in a time of pioneer migrations he lauds the pleasures of staying put. In a century notorious for its smugness toward all that preceded it, Thoreau points out the stifling conventionality and constraining labor conditions that made nineteenth-century progress possible.
One clear illustration of Thoreau’s resistance to progress is his criticism of the train, which throughout Europe and America was a symbol of the wonders and advantages of technological progress. Although he enjoys imagining the local Fitchburg train as a mythical roaring beast in the chapter entitled “Sounds,” he generally seems peeved by the encroachment of the railway upon the rustic calm of Walden Pond. Like Tolstoy in Russia, Thoreau in the United States dissents from his society’s enthusiasm for this innovation in transportation, seeing it rather as a false idol of social progress. It moves people from one point to another faster, but Thoreau has little use for travel anyway, asking the reason for going off “to count the cats in Zanzibar.” It is far better for him to go vegetate in a little corner of the woods for two years than to commute from place to place unreflectively.
Thoreau is skeptical, as well, of the change in popular mindset brought by train travel. “Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented?” he asks with scarcely concealed irony, as if punctuality were the greatest virtue progress can offer. People “talk and think faster in the depot” than they did earlier in stagecoach offices, but here again, speedy talk and quick thinking are hardly preferable to thoughtful speech and deep thinking. Trains, like all technological “improvements” give people an illusion of heightened freedom, but in fact represent a new servitude, since one must always be subservient to fixed train schedules and routes. For Thoreau, the train has given us a new illusion of a controlling destiny: “We have constructed a fate, a new Atropos, that never turns aside.” As the Greek goddess Atropos worked—she determined the length of human lives and could never be swayed (her name means “unswerving”)—so too does the train chug along on its fixed path and make us believe that our lives must too.
The moral directness and hardheaded practical bookkeeping matters with which Thoreau inaugurates Walden do not prepare us for the lyrical outbursts that occur quite frequently and regularly in the work. Factual and detail-minded, Thoreau is capable of some extraordinary imaginary visions, which he intersperses within economic matters in a highly unexpected way. In his chapter “The Bean-Field,” for example, Thoreau tells us that he spent fifty-four cents on a hoe, and then soon after quotes a verse about wings spreading and closing in preparation for flight. The down-to-earth hoe and the winged flight of fancy are closely juxtaposed in a way typical of the whole work.
Occasionally the lyricism is a quotation of other people’s poems, as when Thoreau quotes a Homeric epic in introducing the noble figure of Alex Therien. At other times, as in the beautiful “Ponds” chapter, Thoreau allows his prose to become lyrical, as when he describes the mystical blue ice of Walden Pond. The intermittent lyricism of Walden is more than just a pleasant decorative addition or stylistic curiosity. It delivers the powerful philosophical message that there is higher meaning and transcendent value in even the most humble stay in a simple hut by a pond. Hoeing beans, which some might consider the antithesis of poetry, is actually a deeply lyrical and meaningful experience when seen in the right way.
Thoreau mentions several actual people in Walden, but curiously, he also devotes considerable attention to describing nonexistent or imaginary people. At the beginning of the chapter “Former Inhabitants,” Thoreau frankly acknowledges that in his winter isolation he was forced to invent imaginary company for himself. This conjuring is the work of his imagination, but it is also historically accurate, since the people he conjures are based on memories of old-timers who remember earlier neighbors now long gone. Thoreau’s imaginary companions are thus somewhere between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. When Thoreau describes these former inhabitants in vivid detail, we can easily forget that they are now dead: they seem too real.
Thoreau also manages to make actual people seem imaginary. He never uses proper names when referring to friends and associates in Walden, rendering them mythical. After Thoreau describes Alex Therien as a Homeric hero, we cannot help seeing him in a somewhat poetic and unreal way, despite all the realism of Thoreau’s introduction. He doesn’t name even his great spiritual teacher, Emerson, but obliquely calls him the “Old Immortal.” The culmination of this continual transformation of people into myths or ideas is Thoreau’s expectation of “the Visitor who never comes,” which he borrows from the Vedas, a Hindu sacred text. This remark lets us see how spiritual all of Thoreau’s imaginary people are. The real person, for him, is not the villager with a name, but rather the transcendent soul behind that external social persona.