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Simplicity

The first two chapters out of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden both feel like introductions, but different “types” of introductions. The chapter titled “Economy” reads like a very detailed forward, in some way: Thoreau establishes what I think of as the premise of the work, namely the ways in which he feels cultured, “civilized” society seems to have lost a purpose by over-advancing. In this first chapter he demonstrates this idea by establishing what he believes are the essentials for human life—these would be food, fuel, clothing, shelter—and then detailing how society has complicated each of these necessities until they have become burdensome and unhealthy to maintain.

The second chapter is more an introduction to the book itself—it is less cerebral, in a way. It discusses how Thoreau had long gone through the motions of purchasing land, and while he had never actually acquired any, he thought of himself as having, at one point, lived in nearly all the farmland that he had seen. He then describes the place where he finally lived outside of his mind; where he built his physical house. Thoreau then becomes more philosophical, and discusses the nature of the simplicity with which he lived. Even though this is a less tangible topic than the earlier part of the chapter, he still grounds this discussion in the location he chose to live, and the way he comported himself while living there.

There were a number of passages which, for one reason or another were particularly attention catching while I was reading. I will admit that some of them were simply because I particularly liked or didn’t like them, and had relatively little additional thinking initially attached to them. However, one section did prompt a stronger, immediate reaction. In the opening of his discussion of simplicity in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” Thoreau writes,

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” (Thoreau, 69)

By this point in my reading, I was not at all surprised that Thoreau would proclaim such a thing. It seemed like he was merely stating in plainer speech an idea he had been ruminating on throughout his work thus far. His bemoaning of the state of the homeowner, his interest in the labor of his own hands, and not of the tools which he sees as dominating his world, and many of the other things Thoreau has written up till now, can all be seen to be extended and complex versions of this simpler declaration.

And so, while it makes perfect sense, it made me wonder at something that might, at first, seem only tangentially related. I almost instantly paused in my reading to wonder at how much one’s times shapes a person. I read a New York Times article, just today, about the massive loss of species our planet is currently facing. I have read many an article and book about this topic of late, and this one was not, in some ways, any more or less novel than others. But it did impress just how magnificently huge the task of slowing—not stopping, for that ship has long since sailed—the loss of species is. The logistics and coordination involved are astronomical, global, and complicated.

Upon reading about Thoreau’s declaration of how beautiful and desirable simplicity is, in cares and thought and deed, I found myself thinking how selfish such a thing seems to me. The wildness and simplicity that Thoreau dwelt in during the time encompassed in Walden seems destined to vanish. In my experience, the necessity is to see and recognize the complexity of the world. I wonder if I am like the prince in the Hindu story Thoreau relates—too used to my concept of the world as mired in a cobweb of interconnected disciplines and confounding ethical and practical dilemmas of our time, to see that the world is much simpler than I “know” it to be. But then alternately I wonder if Thoreau might have been a product of his time as much as I am mine. Would he have spouted entirely different philosophies if he was trying to retire to Walden Pond in 2016 instead of the 1840s? Would he acknowledge today that complexity is simply the way the world works? Or would he still find a way to see the path to simplicity without forsaking the natural world to a tragic fate?

 

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