Revisiting Walden, Part 1 (Economy)

“Walden, or, life in the woods” is one of my all time favorite books. Perhaps because it is, by many, the “bible” of simple living. The last time I read it, I remember stopping a few times in certain paragraphs to re-read, digest, and wonder about Thoreau’s ramblings on life, money and work. I regret that I never wrote them down or made my selection of the most special passages from the book.

Until now.

I’m beginning to read Walden again, this time not just for the sake of reading but also to collect and extract my favorite parts. I’ll be posting them here in the blog under the walden tag. Along with the excerpts, I’ll also add my own thoughts, if I feel like it.

You are all invited to join in and comment below 🙂 This is part #1, on Economy:

I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders “until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach”; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars — even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness. The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor.

I love the humorist way with which Thoreau approaches the strenuous lives of many workers, comparing it to really awful, painful living conditions, which seem to be better after all!

Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge?

The great thing about re-reading books is that you eventually read things you could swear you never read before 🙂 This is one such example. I can’t believe how I don’t even remember this paragraph, considering how deep it is.

“How can he remember well his ignorance – which is growth requires – who has so often to use his knowledge?”. Let that sink in for a moment… Work requires so much from us, so much from our intellect, our knowledge, that we barely have the freedom in space and time to be remember our own ignorance, or, could we say, to be more aware of who we are, without the pressure of intellectual activity.

Maybe a bit unrelated, but reminds me of Zhuangzi “You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog – he’s limited by the space he lives in. You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect – he’s bound to a single season. You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar – he’s shackled by his intellect”.

One farmer says to me, “You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with”; and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle. Some things are really necessaries of life in some circles, the most helpless and diseased, which in others are luxuries merely, and in others still are entirely unknown.

I think Thoreau’s gets back to this example later in the book. Here, once more, pointing out the unnecessary complexities of life, to serve nothing but the complexities we ourselves create. A body that believes he needs meat to be strong and fit, will spend a considerable amount of time creating conditions for the growth of said meat. So much work and time involved, that actually he ends up spending all that energy or even more, and so a vicious cycle is created. If you need less, you’ll need to have less to meet your needs 🙂

A short aside: also worth mentioning that this old-age myth that meat gives more nutrition or strength has long been proved wrong. Even many athletes, nowadays, are fully vegan or vegetarian for health and performance reasons.

But back on topic. We could extrapolate this example to so many areas of our lives. As a simple-living enthusiast, my take on finances is not “how can I make more money”, but “how can I need less money?”. If you need less, then you wont need to do so much of things you dislike doing, just for the sake of surviving. I see people all around who fill their lives with so much “stuff”, and then all that “stuff” just drains the life out of them, be it in maintenance time, time working to pay said things, etc.

I’ll wrap this first part here, will be back for more soon!