Who is the true Henry David Thoreau?
Who is the true Henry David Thoreau?
“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbours up.”
So are written the decisive and compelling words of one of America’s leading and best known philosophers – Henry David Thoreau.
Born in 1817, Henry David Thoreau grew up in north east America in the small farming town of Concord during a time when America was undergoing massive change on sociological, religious and technological fronts.
The civil war would not begin till the penultimate year of his short life, although the framework for that bloody period of history would be set during his tenure, as tensions would escalate between the North and the South over the issue of slavery. He would in time become part of the Underground Railroad Movement that helped escaped slaves across the border into Canada. He would famously write about his experience of being sent to jail for a night for refusing to pay a poll tax in protest against his own Government for embarking upon an imperialist war with Mexico – an action that would in time inspire the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
He would witness the industrialisation of his nation, and the creation of the great railway that would unify the country and end up passing right across the doorstep of his beloved Walden Pond. He would befriend the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, through whom he would develop relationships with some of America’s greatest authors, who together would mark a period in history known as America’s literary renaissance. All of these events would serve to give context to his life, a life for which he would become known primarily for his astute observations of humanity and nature, which to him could not be separated.
During his short life, Henry Thoreau was many things to many people in the small town of Concord. He was of course a writer, but also a machinist who developed and refined the technology and machinery for his father’s pencil making business that enabled them to produce the finest pencils in America. In time, he became Concord’s leading surveyor as well as being a public speaker, outspoken abolitionist, a key part of the Transcendentalist Movement, Harvard scholar, teacher, lecturer, handyman, naturalist and philosopher all rounded into one.
He is perhaps best known for the book he wrote about the two years he partially retreated from the world to live a life of frugal simplicity beside the edge of Walden Pond. There he built himself a hut, and turned his whole being to nature in order to attempt to make sense of the world he knew. In his words, he “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, 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, discover that I had not lived”.
In years to follow after his death, the writings he left behind caused him to become renowned as one of America’s foremost thinkers and philosophers, which is ironic given that Henry Thoreau was in many ways a very vocal critic of the very society that now proudly claims him as one of their own.
A quick dissection of some of his many quotes illuminates Thoreau as a man who was almost compelled to call out the truth of things as he saw it, no matter what shadow it cast upon his own reputation. As his friend Emerson wrote upon his death, ‘He was a speaker and actor of the truth – born such – and was ever running into dramatic situations from this cause. In any circumstance, it interested all bystanders to know what part Henry would take, and what he would say: and he did not disappoint expectation, but used an original judgement on each emergency.”
There was very little of American society and indeed very little of western civilisation that Henry Thoreau did not challenge.
Of his fellow man he wrote,
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
On observing the struggle of his fellow citizens and their preoccupation with progress, he wrote,
“I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freer.”
Of the media at the time, he wrote,
“I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper… if you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?... To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.”
On the societal values and etiquette that underpinned American society at the time, he was particularly scathing, writing that
“Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable, and that we need not come to open war.”
On the very institutions that gave him his education, he himself being a Harvard scholar, he wrote,
“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, not even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”
On materialism and consumerism, he wrote,
“Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful house-keeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation: now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no house-keeper.”
On his observations of his own country, he wrote,
“Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon.”
Yes, Thoreau was a controversial and polarising figure during his life, and to this day continues to provoke critics and admirers in equal measure. Somehow, despite devoting an entire chapter of his most famous book to the criticism of the philanthropic ideal, he still remains at large revered by a nation who holds such charitable ideals as one of the cornerstones of their society.
Perhaps it is no coincidence then that one of his most famous and loved quotes is often abbreviated as follows:
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
Left as it is, it is quite a broad statement, relevant to many facets of life, but challenging none – a beautiful turn of phrase, but conveniently meaningless for lack of relevance. Read the whole quote, however, and indeed the whole chapter from whence it is sourced, and one cannot escape the fact that Thoreau was calling out the falsity of the philanthropic foundations upon which American society prides itself.
And so the whole quote reads as follows:
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”
In the same body of writing he states that “philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated and it is our selfishness which overrates it.”
So how is it that such a man could become so widely revered, when it is unlikely that there stands a human being in existence who does not have cause to feel judged or challenged by his views? Certainly Thoreau is not without his critics today, just as he was not without his critics during his own life. Robert Louis Stevenson – the famous Scottish poet and novelist who penned Treasure Island – took great offence to Thoreau’s criticism of Christian values.
Current day Pulitzer prize winning journalist Kathryn Schulz recently took a sort of intellectual pleasure in dissecting Thoreau, in a clever but manipulative piece of writing for the New York Times titled “Pond Scum”– in which she managed to expertly skip across the shallowest parts of Walden Pond without even getting her feet wet. Thereupon she managed to interpret his writings in a way that conveyed him as a cold, self-obsessed narcissist and hypocrite who did his best to isolate himself from society and humanity by way of his indolent, judgmental, and arrogant attitude.
A quick dissection of writings from those who know him best however would suggest he was viewed differently during his life. In his eulogy, Emerson wrote of Thoreau, “A truthspeaker he, capable of the most deep and strict conversation: a physician to the wounds of any soul; a friend, knowing not only the secret of friendship, but almost worshipped by those few persons who resorted to him as their confessor and prophet, and knew the deep value of his mind and great heart.”
Indeed, whilst Henry Thoreau was seen as something of an oddity in his own community and sometimes found himself on the outer for his sharp tongue and seeming inability to commit to any one particular job for any sustained period of time, he was widely revered in many regards. Whilst he eschewed the superficial nature of dinner parties, he was by no means a hermit, despite his tendency for spending large amounts of time alone and in nature. And whilst he may well have been considered serious in demeanour and almost wooden by some, he also displayed a playfulness he refused to yield unto adulthood. He was famous for holding huckleberry parties, whereupon he would gather what young at heart he could for an expedition into nature to find the richest huckleberry bush, during the course of which he would offer to all who would listen his astute observations of the world. Indeed, walking was one of his favourite pastimes, and many an adult likewise often sought out his company and his advice on such a long sojourn into the wilderness. He was well regarded as a public speaker, and such was the affection held for him by the local community that upon his passing, the local school was given the day off so that all could attend his funeral.
Since his death, many have suggested that his reputation of being one of the first true Naturalists is undeserved; that his observations of nature were unscientific, perhaps even pseudo-scientific – to employ a phrase not used in his time, but likely to be applied by today’s sceptics who seek to determine that science remains a cold hard tool devoid of any connection to philosophy or religion. When assessed by such means, their criticism of Thoreau’s technique and observations might be valid, but they miss the point that Thoreau never claimed to be a scientist. Indeed, he went to great pains to avoid being branded by any label, or to follow any rules. But as Fannie Hardy Echstorm so beautifully wrote in her balanced appraisal of the man some 50 years after his death, “It was not as an observer that Thoreau surpassed other men, but as an interpreter. He had the art to see the human values of natural objects, to perceive the ideal elements of unreasoning nature and the service of those ideals to the soul of man…”
It is here that the true Henry David Thoreau starts to emerge, and we start to understand why he has touched so many people over time and will continue to do so throughout the ages. For Henry’s writings were not limited to a critique of the human condition, and wherever he did so, it was not done without a sense of appeal to our higher nature. Indeed, whilst Thoreau was enamoured with nature, never did he cease to see that it represented by way of reflection something of humanity’s true essence.
This can be seen in his writing. Every now and then amidst the drudgery of his descriptions of the physical landscape, Thoreau drops in a passage that draws the reader unto the stars, and when he does so he moves into another gear, and takes a left turn into heavenly realms you never expected, leaving you to reach into parts of yourself hitherto forgotten. There you are, travelling with him down the Concord River, fresh from reading some intimate and at times boring description of some sandbank he has ventured past, when he pauses to recount an ancient verse from the Bhagavad Gita, or emerges to reflect on the true nature of friendship and of life.
Rarely has there been a writer who can convey so much with so few poignantly chosen words.
So writes Thoreau,
“The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.Walden, p303
Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn.
The sun is but a morning star.”
This is Thoreau at his finest, and the Thoreau that is so deeply loved by so many.
In Walden, after having dismissed the allure of society’s version of success, he writes, “The day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal – that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment, of the rainbow which I have clutched.”
By way of simplicity, he offers the following as an antidote to the desires of human life:
“I am glad to have drunk water so long, for the same reason that I prefer the natural sky to an opium-eater’s heaven. I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness. I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them: Even music may be intoxicating. Such apparently slight causes destroyed Greece and Rome, and will destroy England and America. Of all ebriosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?”Walden, p195
Here the budding initiate is finally revealed by his choices in life, and hidden behind the leaves that make up much of his writing is the occasional fruit for the taking that offers us the way and means to experience life as he does. For Thoreau intrinsically knew – as does any initiate – that in order to connect to the essence of God in a way that does not rely on hope or faith, one needs to maintain a body of purity that allows one’s sensitivity to life to remain intact, that in turn allows one to feel the true essence of the Universe. As he wrote, “The laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive.”
“Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open. By turns our purity inspires and our impurity casts us down. He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established.”Walden, p198
This is the Thoreau that speaks through the ages, who occasionally arises above his concerns with everyday humanity to appeal to every fellow man to connect to the heavens he knows, using nature as his conduit.
Critics of his work often overlook these moments, preferring instead to focus on his more provocative content. Conversely, there are those who deify Thoreau in ways he never intended, and so equally distort his true message. Ironically, it is because of Thoreau’s marvellous ability to captivate his audience and communicate so much with a simple turn of phrase that has in many ways allowed him to be greatly misrepresented – both by critics and supporters alike.
Conduct a Google search of Henry David Thoreau and you are instantly bombarded with a litany of one-liners and quotes from his books – quotes that have been taken out of context and used by many from all walks of life to justify their cause – from environmentalists and political activists, to motivational speakers and life coaches.
On one hand, Thoreau is today celebrated as representing the free-thinking, capable, and independent frontier man who showed how to live a life of simplicity, free from the constrictions of governance and systems that impose themselves upon society. There is as such a sort of romantic ideal that has developed around his reputation. He is regarded by many as a forefather to modern environmentalism, and a voice for activists and hippies determined to carve out a life removed from civilisation. Today we do not have the privilege of asking him, but it is very likely that the true Thoreau would in many ways cringe at the ways his voice has been used as a foundation for such movements, even though on the surface it would appear he supported such modes of life.
For all his posturing for the abolitionist movement and the likes of anti-slavery activist Jonathon Brown, Thoreau was no activist at heart. Neither was he an extremist who decried against technology and eschewed society in its entirety to promote a return to living half naked amongst the trees. Read deeply and in between the lines and you realise that this was never his message. After all, in his book Walden he wrote as fondly of the steam train that ran right past his beloved pond as he did of the Red Maples and Pine trees that lined its shores. In many instances, he wrote as fondly of his visitors.
Indeed, it is in some ways no coincidence that Thoreau chose Walden Pond as his muse, a place that was still of nature, but in many ways still connected to civilisation. As author Laura Walls so poignantly observed in her biography, Thoreau was more enamoured with the commons that he was the true wilderness – the commons being the manicured farmland and the edges of nature that had been shaped in part by man. Walden Pond was such a place, frequented by such visitors as the wood choppers, fishermen and the ice carvers who cut ice from the pond‘s surface during the winter. For all his focus on nature, Thoreau could not separate himself entirely from humanity, as much as he was at times deeply hurt by what he saw. He had too much withheld love for the world – even if it was diminished somewhat by his awareness of the corruption he saw all around him.
So his true intended message was not one of a recluse, but rather that in our quest to succumb to the demands of society, we have lost our way, and lost our true essence. His call to the preservation of the wilderness was not done so in order to protect it – for ultimately nature plays the long game and thus does not need protecting for its own good – but rather to protect humanity in their haste for progress from losing the profound reflection it offers with regards to our true nature.
Part of the justifiable criticism of Thoreau is that his life and experiences have been deified. Certainly when one reads an account of his life by famous philosopher and his good friend Emerson, it is obvious that many of his talents were somewhat embellished. It was said for example that he could tell the day of the year by observing which plant was coming to flower in the forest. It was equally said that he could estimate the height of a tree by eye better than a surveyor with his instruments, or could pace out a distance more accurately than a man with rod and chain. However, rather than see such embellishments as being a natural consequence of the immense love he was held in by those who knew him best, such shortcomings are either quickly pounced upon by his critics or further embellished by those wishing to hold him on a pedestal.
Thoreau never pretended that he lived a life of complete self-sufficiency or in total seclusion during his time at Walden Pond, and yet that part of his life is often misinterpreted as such. Then, when the truth is revealed, that he frequently walked back into town to have dinner at his parents’ and friends’ houses, people look to hold him to account for being a hypocrite, as though his insights into human nature no longer hold any relevance.
As a side note, there is a valuable lesson here, and indeed part of a much greater pattern when it comes to understanding past custodians of the Ageless Wisdom, and that is that often they are deified in a way that makes their levels of awareness appear to be somewhat unattainable. Whilst Thoreau was not in the same league of awareness as Yeshua (Jesus), or Siddartha Gautama, there is a similarity in that there was a tendency to put them on an unattainable pedestal, just as there is to a lesser degree with Thoreau. The true teachings that Yeshua brought humanity have today been diminished by the unattainable legend of a man who walked on water and was raised from the dead. Thoreau’s character likely does not risk such defilement, but only because his life is so well documented. It is not hard to imagine, however, that if most of his writings were lost over a couple of hundred years, that such characteristics as those described above could be easily exaggerated, turning him into yet another unattainable saint. Such is our propensity to bastardise history, and keep the true teachings of The Ageless Wisdom at arms length rather than making them accessible.
Regarding Thoreau, and his occasional propensity to get things wrong by way of detail, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm puts things nicely in perspective, when she wrote not long after his death about his visits to the Maine Woods, “Because he made some mistakes in unimportant details, he must not be accused of being unreliable. How trustworthy Thoreau is may be known by this – that fifty years after he left the state forever, I can trace out and call by name almost every man whom he even passed while in the woods. He did not know the names of some of them, possibly he did not speak to them: but they can be identified after half a century. The wonder is, not that Thoreau did so little here, but that in three brief visits, a stranger, temperamentally alien to these great wildernesses, he got at the heart of so many matters.”
This is not the description of a hermit who did not understand humanity, and so is the falsity of the claim that Thoreau was nothing more than a loner who lived on the edge of society revealed. Whilst it is true that he did spend copious time in nature, he was never as isolated from society as one might be led to think. Indeed, in his short life, he became deeply embedded in his community. In his early career, he started a teaching school, which was quite successful until his brother with whom he ran the school died from tuberculosis. When his parents became ill later in life, he took over the daily running of their pencil making business. In between, he taught himself the skill of surveying over the course of a single winter, and when he was not surveying or working in his parents’ business he was taking on work as a handyman. As Emerson wrote in his Eulogy, Thoreau was the type of man who was determined to pay his own way in life.
Thoreau was above all things an extremely profound observer of nature and humanity – his records of nature so accurate that they are used today by modern scientists who are studying the gradual change in seasons caused by climate change.
In some ways Thoreau’s reputation suffers because of his propensity to occasionally pause and capture immense concepts in few words. Like many great philosophers, he occasionally stokes the fire in ways not easily understood, leaving himself somewhat open to misinterpretation. Philosophy is best lived, and when dissected with the mind, it risks being misinterpreted.
Underlying Thoreau’s philosophy, however, was a great practicality underpinned by a great measure of common sense. If there was a God, or a religion, then it should have its feet on the ground.
It was for this reason that he was disgusted with organised religion and its benevolent ideals, and turned to The Transcendentalist movement for inspiration. What good is it to harbour such good desire to help others, if it is only to satiate one’s own need to feel important and to quench one’s own feelings of guilt for the state of the world? What good is it to hide behind a pulpit and preach on Sunday, only to go about your life as you wish the rest of the week?
So what to make of Henry David Thoreau? Here he is included in the lineage of the Ageless Wisdom, and yet it would be premature to include him alongside the likes of Yeshua, Siddartha Gautama, or Da Vinci as a true servant of Heaven. Those initiates changed the world in ways we cannot see. Their lives inspired many, even though their message in time became greatly warped beyond recognition.
Thoreau, by comparison, never quite reached such heights of connection. Yet it was not because he had not the awareness to do so. Sift through his writings, and you realise here was a man with an understanding that allowed him to remain deeply connected to Heaven whilst simultaneously allowing him to see deeply into the illusion of life. In his writings, he provided insights into subjects that very few are ever willing to truly ponder on. It is easy to see through the evil of slavery, but to see through the evil of philanthropy – by understanding all that it hides beneath its veil of good, to see that it creates the illusion of progress when in truth there is none, to see that all too often it is ultimately self-serving… this takes a lot of honesty and willingness to see the true rot of evil and the hold it has on humanity.
It takes great awareness to understand how the ideal of benevolence is fool’s gold, the false plateau of hope that offers no true respite to man’s suffering.
Very few see through the corruption of life to such a level. Very few allow themselves to feel humanity to its very core, to allow one’s sensitivity to remain uncorrupted by the feeble cloak of comfort and desire.
Yet perversely, and in many ways, Thoreau does not receive enough criticism, suggesting his words do not carry the power to offer the deepening of awareness that they perhaps otherwise might. To the observant eye, this betrays that there was something in Henry David Thoreau that did not allow his great awareness to be communicated in the full authority of his being, that did not quite allow him to strike at the very heart of the matter and in so doing disrupt the sleeping giant from its comfortable slumber. Otherwise it is certain that he would be more widely condemned by those invested in the forms of corruption he regularly called out. By all accounts, his own country should disown him for pulling back the veil on the illusionary ideals that they hold so dear.
No, the mark of the truly wise is that they are all too often unfortunately either ignored or condemned by society for their offering, with great effort made to bastardise and twist their true teachings. To date, the writings of Thoreau have not suffered such a fate, fortunate as it is that so many of his original writings have been preserved unedited, unlike great philosophers of the past.
The Way of The Livingness teaches us that it is not by knowledge that we develop awareness but by the way we live. It is by opening ourselves up to communication from the sensitivity of the body that we come to feel the true essence of life, and it is by The Way of The Livingness that we then come to know Heaven, not by way of scripture or dogma.
Was this the issue with Thoreau, as it was with John Dee who equally held great wisdom but did not have the purity of body to hold the love needed to sustain the attacks upon his integrity?
The answer in part is – yes – although only from a point of comparison with regards to his great awareness, for were one to look at his life by way of what he embodied from an initiate’s point of view, there is very little to fault. He had immense physical discipline. He had no vice that could be written of – his diet was frugal, and he drank no alcohol nor smoked tobacco. With regards to the emotional desires, he had very few, if any, to contend with – to the point where many in time have perhaps mistakenly questioned his sexuality, given that he was equally able to express affection to both men and women, as is evident in his journal entries. As Emerson wrote, “few lives contain so many renunciations.” He did not bow to any church or institution, did not define himself by any profession or obvious tag of identity, and he did not enter into false relationship out of any ideal.
Neither did he hide from the world in the way many assume. Here was a man devoted to doing whatever needed to be done on many levels, be it working for the abolitionist movement, or publically standing up for truth. Whilst he did not subscribe to the Jones’ way of living, he still held down a job to pay for his way in life. He was in many ways an outstanding member of his community – committed to sharing what wisdom he had to share, eschewing none bar those who arrogantly held themselves above their common man, whom he quickly called to account. Here was a man who upon his deathbed was asked by his aunt if he had yet made peace with God, to which he replied, “I did not know that we ever quarrelled.”
As an initiate and exemplar of what it means to be a true custodian of the Ageless Wisdom, it is difficult to find fault with Thoreau. Yet if we are to be strict in our assessment of what true service entails, and willing to learn and apply the lessons of those who came before us, then dissect his life we must, even if it means finding fault.
It is at this point to which one must return to the recent criticism by Kathryn Schulz, who despite being overly judgemental and somewhat melodramatic in her appraisal, hints at part of Thoreau’s fallacy when she writes that his book Walden “was a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.”
Within this somewhat exaggerated appraisal there is exposed an important grain of truth. Whilst it is difficult to find fault with what Thoreau wrote about humanity, it is likely he would have had more natural authority and right to do so had he rolled up his sleeves and dived head first into the type of life that most of his contemporaries had to contend with. After all, what good is being connected to God and your own higher nature if you can only experience that sense of connection devoid from the everyday realities of life? Not all of us can afford the pleasure of a one hour walk in the woods every day as Thoreau recommended. So does that mean that the rest of us are doomed to a life of dis-connection, because our closest relationship to nature is with a dried-up pot plant on our doorstep?
Yes Thoreau was committed in many ways. But read between the lines, and one can see that in reality he only did what he had to in order to get by in terms of temporal life.
That was his first error. By all accounts, Henry should have made his parents’ pencil making business far more successful than it was, or taken his surveying business to much greater heights – not because he needed the recognition, but because it would have served much more deeply to illustrate how his connection to God could be applied in the ‘necessaries’ of everyday life, and thus lead by way of example.
Part of the path of the true initiate is to realise that Heaven is with us whether we are knee deep in the muck of everyday life, or experiencing a moment of isolated splendour in nature by the side of the fire with only the stars and a rising moon for company to keep.
Instead Thoreau is now consigned to history as a sort of outlier, who sat on the edge of civilisation and wrote from afar. As such, the likes of Kathryn Schulz have justification and the fuel to ignore his otherwise immense insight into the true state of human affairs by being able to write him off as a judgemental loner who did not have the capacity to join his fellow man in dealing with the everyday challenges of life.
This however is not the full story of Henry David Thoreau, and it would be remiss to end on such a point of reckoning without drawing forth a deeper understanding of what made Thoreau who he was in that life, and to understand more deeply why he lived the life he did.
By all accounts, a man as wise as Henry David Thoreau should have joined ranks with many of the great initiates who walked before him. He certainly had the insight. That should never be forgotten, otherwise there is danger that an honest assessment of his life descends into criticism, which becomes judgement – which then laces our understanding of the heart of the matter.
Henry David Thoreau’s issue was that he could not shut down his awareness of all that life is, and by contrast all it has to offer by way of true connection. To the end of his dying days, he could not come to terms with this duality to life.
Most of society lives with a deep sense of unsettlement and unrest that belies their external being. The more honest amongst us display our inability to cope with this tension outwardly in ways that make the rest of us uncomfortable. The more dishonest amongst us keep this feeling of dis-ease in check by aspiring to lead either the busy, good or hopeful life – or equally a life of conformity, comfort, and mediocrity.
Thoreau unfortunately could not distract himself in any of these ways, and it was this underlying turmoil to which he referred to when he said that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation…A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”
He could not draw his eyes away from the deep unrest that plagued humanity, and indeed himself, and so was drawn instead to the solitude and deep stillness that nature had to offer. Ultimately it became his addiction. There are of course worse coping mechanisms available to temper one’s awareness.
But Thoreau was not willing to sacrifice his sensitivity by way of such other means. So, as Serge Benhayon once shared, Henry David Thoreau ultimately had a choice – go mad with grief over all that he allowed himself to feel and see with regards to the rot that was at the core of human existence, or retreat to nature and in doing so retain his connection to divinity. For Henry Thoreau had not yet developed the ability to remain connected to both at the same time – a mastery of life that delineates the true Servant of Heaven from the budding initiate.
The famous outdoor writer of the early twentieth century, Bradford Torrey, wrote, “Thoreau’s love for the wild was not to be confounded with a liking for natural history or an appreciation of scenery.”
Instead nature was his Bodhi tree, his mecca, his point of reconnection and solace from a world suffering from disconnection.
“Alone in distant woods or fields… I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related… I enter some glade in the woods, perchance, where a few weeds and dry leaves alone lift themselves above the surface of the snow, and it is as if I had come to an open window. I see out and around myself… This stillness, solitude, wildness of nature is a kind of thoroughwort or boneset to my intellect. This is what I go out to seek. It is as if I always met in those grand places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible companion, and walked with him.”
Henry’s downfall was that he never came to the realisation that what he connected to in nature – the harmony and the stillness and the sense of omniscience – could be embodied, and as such, never had to leave him, even when the steam train came through twice a day to disturb the tranquil setting by his beloved Walden Pond. Had he come to such a realisation, then he would have realised that he could have settled down in the heart of New York amidst all the tensions of humanity, and still felt that invisible grand companion by his side.
Thoreau was not a loner by choice – rather a man of the people for the people, even to the point of being willing to be unloved by the people. He was more a servant to truth than he was to society.
It is said by Serge Benhayon that to know God you have to embody the five qualities of His essence – Truth, Love, Stillness, Joy, and Harmony.
Thoreau exuded the qualities of Truth and Harmony – of that there is no doubt. To a lesser extent he embodied Love and Joy, although ultimately his ability to embody these traits in full was diminished because of his inability to master Stillness outside of the realms of the woods that he so relied upon to keep him connected and sane.
It is in part why for all his appeal to humanity, you can still sense underneath his words a deep sense of frustration with the world from which his condemning tone occasionally springs forth. It is as though he lived under the illusion that whilst the masses lived by choice in such ignorance of such divinity, he himself was not free to let in the joy and deep love offered to him by the very stars he in turn so treasured whilst ever the rest of humanity still suffered. So instead he held humanity to account for not responding as he would have liked. It is this level of frustration that emanates from his words and tarnishes the otherwise love for his fellow being, and often subconsciously provokes the ire of his critics.
Thoreau never quite came to grips with his own realisation, when he wrote that “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”
What of his own mode of life, and what was he contributing to? Was he ultimately any different? To withdraw and condemn, to remain frustrated with life, to allow himself to be consumed with grief and even self-judgement, rather than allow himself to surrender to the impeccable stillness and wisdom that was offered to him – he was inadvertently contributing to the misery and corruption he so despised.
Thoreau saw much, even that suffering itself is an illusion, a realisation that Siddartha Gautama came to thousands of years before Thoreau’s time. So the rich man and poor man suffer from the same dis-ease – the rich man just having better means by which to distract himself.
“Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune”, wrote Thoreau.
Yet whilst Thoreau understood this, he never really allowed such truth to permeate his very being – and so he suffered the fate of sympathising with all that he felt. What he forgot to do was to put that suffering in context, by remaining aware that the true nature of birth and rebirth is such that we never really die, and we are never really reborn. There is in truth only one ongoing life, segmented into the small chapters we are fooled into thinking represent the entirety of our eistence. Thus, there is no such thing as time as we know it. Suffering as such inevitably comes to an end, but Truth is eternal, as is our Being. Thus, the only surety in life is that we are guaranteed in time to return to the realisation of our true divine origins. It is our disconnection from our divinity that is at the core of our true suffering. All other forms of misery fail by compare.
Until such time that a call is made to end such wilful suffering from those consumed by its many forms of embrace, free will above all else must be allowed to prevail – and the choice for every human being to remain in the comfort of medicated suffering, or reconnect to the splendour of their own magnificence must be respected. Thoreau did not allow himself to arise in full to the hour of his own calling, and as such allow himself to realise that nature is but a poor man’s reflection of our true omniscience. So neither could he give space for others to come to the same realisation.
As Serge Benhayon is often quoted to say, “ Time, space, and understanding.” There within those words is granted the freedom for those who have allowed themselves greater awareness, to be able to serve alongside their fellow sleeping neighbours without imposition, until such time as they too connect to Henry David Thoreau’s parting words in Walden:
“I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”
For all Henry’s deification of nature, the secret to unlocking his own suffering was hidden in his own words. Like the water lily, we are most receptive to the Sun when we unfurl ourselves in our delicateness. Yes the sun is but a morning star, and no more credence should we give it than that – for all its magnificence – for in our true unveiled state, even the sun pales in compare, our true light being all the more vibrant than the brightest day, our depth beyond anything nature can deliver to our doorstep.