Thoreau and The Highest of Arts

Who was the dominant figure of Henry David Thoreau, an avid naturalist, essayist, reform advocate and civil disobedient.

Thoreau believed that as we get older we fall into a routine, gradually and mindlessly beating a track for ourselves. Bogged down with daily trifles, we lose our gusto for living.

The great mass of men, he wrote, live lives of quiet desperation.

More than 150 years ago, Thoreau blamed this on the rat race and materialism:

* Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.

* Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasure which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.

Thoreau wanted to avoid this trap. So he escaped to Walden Pond for two years “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he writes, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.”

Of course, vanishing into the woods isn’t a realistic option for most of us. Some might even say it smacks of running from your problems rather than confronting them.

But Thoreau believed that personal peace and serenity are only found in communion with nature. It is where the great truths and existential secrets are discovered.

For Transcendentalists, nature is the key to spiritual attainment. It offers the solitude to think about how we spend our time. It provides the silence where Thoreau’s “different drummer” can be heard.

Do not live foolishly like other men, he warned, but according to universal laws. That meant studying the ancients, revering wisdom, and living according to its dictates.

A successful life, Thoreau argues, is built on simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and meaningful work.

Reading him today awakens something inside us that modern society suppresses. Thoreau asks us to make a new estimate of ourselves, to think bravely about our lives, and boldly ask, “How shall I live?”

My friend John – and others suffering from the same ennui – might benefit from answering his call for personal renewal.

Thoreau reminds us that human life is a great privilege. We have the whole world to devour and explore, if we will only awaken to it.

Some may call the Transcendentalists dreamers. And there is certainly an element of idealism here.

But they were also chroniclers of the human spirit. And their advice to scorn appearances, conduct your life with wisdom and integrity, and transcend the often-deadening effects of modern culture is timeless.

We’re only here once, they remind us. Life should be an ecstasy.

Or as Thoreau famously said, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Source: Alex Green

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