Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven’t any of consequence. –Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau was a man who valued time. Not in the monetary sense, as we are apt to envision today by the adage of “time is money,” but rather viewed it in broader, more cosmological terms, equating it with the eternal and divine. “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” he says in Walden. “I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” Time is the gateway, the buffer, to the underlying force that imbues life with meaning and purpose. Squandering time as but a means to accumulate wealth, as Thoreau viewed it, was an act as profane as despoiling a church. How can we foster a relationship with the divine when we devote a majority of our time tirelessly working to accumulate possessions which will “moth and rust?”
Our restless nature, devoted to toiling day in and day out for a “pecuniary reward” with the added benefit of keeping us busy and out of trouble, couldn’t be more base and uneducated. This misdirected work ethic doesn’t arise so much from greed as that “our vision does not penetrate the surface of things.” We view time, like the water in Thoreau’s metaphorical stream, as a commodity to be traded and sold, and not as the holy water that it truly is.
Thoreau wetted his fingers in the current to obtain his victuals and other “necessaries of life,” but certainly didn’t immerse and drown himself in it as most of us commonly do today. A couple dabs a week was sufficient to sustain him. He sought focus on more important matters.
He understood moderation and sobriety. Instead of copiously imbibing in mostly fruitless work until he was too fatigued to accomplish anything of personal value, he substituted it for leisure and endeavors closer to the heart which no quantity of money could measure up to. He noted that most are “occupied with factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors” to the point where one has “no time to be anything but a machine” insomuch that the “finer fruits cannot be plucked.” The route that Thoreau pursued was one devoted to seeking out the mystifying and inspirational qualities of Nature, recording his unique sights and thoughts in poetry and prose. This was his divine life. To others it’s something else, just as personal and individualistic. We can’t aspire to this “higher and more ethereal life” without shifting our perception and giving up what society has solidified as bedrock. We must burrow beneath or soar above it.
By living simply and attuned to the natural world Thoreau discovered that our main focus should be placed on the intangible. New experiences and opportunities are the “marrow of life.” Toys and technological gadgets which increasingly provide our main sources of extracurricular entertainment distract us by placing our time into purely external vectors that yield no dividend. Even the highest or most refined strain of materialism can’t replicate or supersede the benefits of an inherently humble, natural life. “The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening,” Thoreau rapturously mused. “It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”
The relentless pursuit of wealth clouds the eyes, robbing us of the beauty and simplicity of nature. The “commercial spirit” which was the gospel and ruling force of Thoreau’s day and still animates and drives us at present, leads to an ingrained belief that commerce surmounts all else; without which the world would stagnate and collapse. Thoreau loathed this was of narrow way of thinking, ultimately upending it in his Harvard commencement speech in which he defiantly stated:
“Let men, true to their natures, cultivate the moral affections, lead manly and independent lives; let them make riches the means and not the end of existence, and we shall hear no more of the commercial spirit. The sea will not stagnate, the earth will be as green as ever, and the air as pure. This curious world which we inhabit is more wonderful than convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used.”
Similarly, Thoreau was appalled to see how easily his contemporaries could be bought “off from their present pursuits” by “a little money or fame.” Chasing the almighty dollar over personal passions, he reasoned, cheated men from situations that were much more profitable to individual growth and understanding the larger, universal picture of existence. “To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse.”
Thoreau excelled at turning things upside down, making someone revisit a situation from a fresh angle or vantage point to see that there exists more than one way of thinking or interpretation. The accustomed standard of success rests upon following a set and tried formula. Plug in variables into the equation and take out a known logarithmic return. It works. Thoreau didn’t devise some entirely new scheme to circumvent this process, but instead, as he was rather fond of doing, simplified the equation to suit his particular tastes. We can best see his razor logic at work in this passage:
"Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. 'Do you wish to buy any baskets?' he asked. 'No, we do not want any,' was the reply. 'What!' exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, 'do you mean to starve us?' Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off — that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed — he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one's while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?"
The ideas developed and touted by Thoreau and other Transcendentalists have often been described as too quixotic and impractical, that idealism can’t be a firm substitute for the realities of a harsh world. While some are indeed whimsical, crafted for purposes of morale and inspiration, a significant portion are practical to integrate into our daily routine. Thoreau wasn’t a man who preached hollow ideals; instead he staunchly embraced the words he uttered and demonstrated them to be true through experience, evinced by his experiment at Walden Pond. During his two year stay in the woods he conclusively proved that it was possible to throw off the yoke of society and still live a rich and meaningful life following one’s particular bent. The hard part was not getting away, but altering thought processes to ensure the allure of “civilized life” wouldn’t, like the sirens’ call, draw one towards the rocks. He was convinced “that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.”