Standing up for what one believes in is an ideal that most grow up with. A just and fair system is one that is expected, but most often not the reality. The question that emerges then, is what one will do about that. Will he or she let the unjust reality guide their life, or will they try to amend the reality to one that is fairer? While many would like to think they would stand up for themselves, and the greater society, it is often very hard to put one’s money where their mouth is. Many claim that they would take action, but never actually do. Contrary to popularity, Henry David Thoreau did put his money where his mouth was and stood up for what he thought was just and fair. The question one must ask themselves as they read Walden, is if Thoreau’s ideas were correct and something they agree is worth standing up for.
In Thoreau’s book, Walden, he discusses the time, from 1845-1847, in which he lived on the Northern shore of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. This experiment was set up by Thoreau to prove his idea that when one lives their life with simplicity, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” (74), and not chasing honor and what others have, one’s life will, in turn, be more simple. Thoreau argues that man complicates his life by “running with the fast crowd”; he says “for he [man] considers, not what is truly respectable, but what is respected” (18). Man becomes so focused on what others have and how they can “one-up each other” and make themselves look that best, that they forget to focus on what is truly important. When one always wants what’s bigger and better, he will never be satisfied with what he has. This will prevent him from being able to relax and enjoy the world around him.
Further, Thoreau argues that man spends too much time enhancing the physical and material aspects of life, that he has no time to improve himself; “While civilization has been improving our house, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them” (28). One does not need to agree with everything Henry Thoreau says, but this idea is certainly true. Often, people spend a lot of time on a minute matter to avoid the thing that is truly important. According to a psychological study done in 2007, 80 to 95 percent of college students procrastinated on a regular basis, particularly when it came to completing assignments and coursework. While Thoreau is not talking about this in terms of procrastination, it certainly can be applied here as well. Man will “beat around the bush” and busy himself with insignificant matters simply because they are easier to complete. The real struggle is putting in the work when it matters. For college students that means getting the assignments done in a timely fashion, and for Thoreau, that means improving one’s true being. It may be easier to not burden oneself with ideas of self-improvement, but then one must ask themselves what they are really accomplishing? Thoreau would say nothing.
Henry Thoreau takes this a step further, by saying that one’s obsession with the biggest and most eye-catching material things, takes away from basic rights and beliefs that many naturally assume to have. In the Economy chapter, Thoreau says, “This town is said to have the largest houses for oxen, cows, and horses hereabouts, and it is not behindhand in its public buildings; but there are very few halls for free worship or free speech in this county” (47). When one is too obsessed with ensuring that their animals, and beyond, have the most luxuries living accommodations, they may forget to become involved in things that matter to not only them but society at large. What makes Thoreau’s point even stronger, is that American’s gained Freedom of Speech in 1791. Given that Thoreau wrote Walden in 1854 it means that so shortly after gaining this freedom, that many worked so hard to get, people were easily dismissing it to things that seemed more important. Money and material wealth are things that are easy to chase; one may not possess them, but the drive to acquire it is easy to fulfill. Thoreau is telling his readers to stop focusing on the short term gain, and instead direct their attention to that which provides long term success. Money will come and go, but Freedom of the Speech (and the like) are here to stay…if society puts in the effort.
Another thing that is interesting to note is Thoreau’s almost adamant opposition to change. When the railroad was first being introduced in America, Thoreau was not in support of it and was even critical of the system. He feels that this advancement won’t help him in any way, and will just be a way for people to move around faster and more easily, again running away from anything important. In addition, it can be said that Thoreau views the train system as one that complicates the everyday life that man was accustomed to before. With the advancement of the railroad system, one will be tied down to a schedule. This schedule no longer makes one in control of themselves, as they are now being controlled by a larger system. This leads one to think they are gaining freedom when in reality they are just becoming enslaved to a new authority. In turn, this makes life more complicated. Thoreau’s drive to make life more simplistic is challenged by the railroad system, a system that helps make life complicated more easily. Beyond the actual railroad system, Thoreau hated what is symbolized; advancements in technology and more complications in society.
Henry David Thoreau is a man with many thoughts and ideas. When viewed in isolation, one can agree that a lot of what he says is true and almost ideal. The problem is that these ideas don’t stand in isolation. Throughout Walden ideas of living a simple life are stressed. While many would love to live like this, it is hard to be so different than everyone around you. One doesn’t need to always be “keeping up with the Jone’s” to want things a little nicer than clothing that is patched up due to tears and holes (18). While most don’t live the way Thoreau did, it can certainly be beneficial to think about how one can improve their lifestyle and begin focusing on things that may be more important than the material wealth people often chase.