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On Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854).
What is the appropriate life for a truly thoughtful person? Thoreau warns against getting ensnared by social bullshit like jobs and charity, and instead living simply, in direct contact with nature, relying as much as possible only on your own effort. His time in the woods on Walden pond was meant to be an experiment to see what life lived this way really has to offer.
Mark, Wes, and Dylan argue about how to best take Thoreau's brand of opinionating, and what the ethical upshot of the attempt to live naturally is supposed to be. Read more about the topic and get the book.
End song: "Green Song" by Mark Linsenmayer, originally released on The MayTricks (1992), newly remixed. Read about it.
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lots of great stuff on Thoreau and his continuing significance for modern life @
Great stuff as usual, but for what it’s worth, I found the mid-discussion commercial for “Square Space” very conflicting, even if ultimately for reasons more aesthetic than strictly ethical. I honestly had a very visceral, gut-level aversive reaction to it that correlated with the experience of the apparent irony in the juxtaposition of philosophical dialogue with advertisement, even when the voices doing the advertising were playfully evincing that they are obviously “in” on the irony. I read Mark’s post re: the decision process behind the shift to a more aggressive profit model for PEL, and while I don’t have an issue with the practical rationale for this in principle, I really find this particular type of marketing especially offensive and off-putting, even as marketing goes. I really love and respect the PEL project and the work that you gents do to make it manifest, but I nonetheless felt that this was worth saying, in part because I suspect that other regular listeners might have a similar feeling.
Kevin Flowers, Jr. says
I was very curious about what you meant when I read this comment before listening to this episode. Upon listening to it, I had the exact same visceral, aversive reaction.
ryan d says
Mark, stop analyzing essayists with your dogmatic philosophical lense. You come off sounding assine and provide ZERO analysis on the text. You get caught up in minute details that don’t reflect the text as a whole. I love it when you step outside of yourself and provide objectivity. I really dont enjoy your spats that are projections of your need for rules and ontology.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Ryan, I’ll refer you to my very text-heavy blog post: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2014/09/20/emerson-on-the-over-soul/. I think on the Emerson episode we did plenty of textual analysis, and my aversion to the evasiveness of the text didn’t keep me from reading many many individual passages during the episode.
You’ve inspired me to write a quick blog post re. Thoreau in this respect…
Ryan D says
I enjoyed the blog post, thanks for being cool instead firing a retort even though I came off a little hostile.
Nick Halme says
That’s interesting, because rather than dogmatic I would have labelled it as pragmatic. I’m warming up to folks like Thoreau and Emerson and in the modern world, Pirsig – but I actually appreciate the implicit philosophical stances being teased out.
It’s an interesting thought that the others seem to have supported as well – like “shh, he’s a great writer, don’t get so anal about the philosophy”. Is there a valid way to read these writers through a modern philosophical lense which respects their own intentions and writings, but clarifies their positions? It seems similar to teasing this stuff out in ancient philosophy and modernizing it; even though there is much more text to work with and it’s in english, there may be a sort of translation that needs to occur.
John Y says
“Simplify! Simplify!” That is the message.
Great episode and discussion. I had to think over this a bit as there’s just so many things.
I agree with Mark’s disagreement with his asceticism which is a rejection of the body and of nature and of the earth. This is where Nietzsche dramatically differs.
“Remain faithful to the earth, my brothers, with the power of your virtue. Let your gift-giving love and your knowledge serve the meaning of the earth. Thus I beg and beseech you. Do not let them fly away from earthly things and beat with their wings against eternal walls. Alas, there has always been so much virtue that has flown away. Lead back to the earth the virtue that flew away, as I do—back to the body, back to life, that it may give the earth a meaning, a human meaning.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
Thoreau’s foray into the woods was an experiment, he never intended to be a part of nature. He kept agriculture. Vegetarianism can only come about in a post agricultural society that is removed/separated from nature. Which goes along with his thoughts toward the body and sexuality – removed from nature.
This is also from transcendentalism itself there is the “transcendent” and so the body and earth are “lowly”.
Adam Arnold in his great post “Fate and Enframing:…” mentioned the destructive practice of fracking but we have to frack, it’s what we’re eating, literally, our current practices of monocrop corn, wheat, soy, etc. rely on fertilizer made from natural gas, the Haber–Bosch process.
Thoreau would have most likely found more abundance in wild foods all around him than in beans and potatoes.
In my yard grows not only dandelion greens but also shepards weed. Actually it grows almost every where in all of my neighbors yards and it is edible.
I now have Florida avocado ( I live in Florida ), loquat, lemon, and grapefruit trees. Next is a coconut and a mango tree. In the back the grass is going for a garden. And this doesn’t matter where you live. What grows there or can grow there? And what do/did the indigenous people eat?
I kept thinking as mentioned if Thoreau had used some technology and then I thought of the Amish in Ohio I’ve visited what if they used some technology. All around their houses are farms/gardens and forrests. And I wondered what it would look like if everyone did away with grass lawns and ornamental plants and did gardens/permaculture yards and we use new technologies.
I know several people here in Florida with orange, grapefruit and avocado trees. One woman with a huge avocado tree gives away so many avocados to me and all of her neighbors and the other woman picks her oranges and grapefruit and of course keeps what she can eat and gives me several bags of each but she gives bags and bags to a local food bank. That is abundance not scarcity. Scarcity is a grass lawn you can’t eat (unless you put goats or chickens there).
Mark mentioned his original idea for New Work of everyone being given the a standard of living. While I like the idea the problems are still the same. Where does the foods come from? Who harvests it in the fields? Where does our stuff come from? Now a most of it comes from sweat shops in Asia often with small children as workers. If you have a Korean made electronic device, I recently got rid of my cellphone which was a small liberation, it most likely was made in a North Korean labor factory.
Let us not have any illusions of how capitalism (and it’s mirror socialism) really work and how capitalism and socialism and our lives and life style depend on the labor suffering and exploitation of others. We have just exported the pollution and suffering and the slave masters in China etc. now grow rich.
And I would add that New Work ideas can be implemented now and it doesn’t have to immediately do away with the current systems. If someone or group(s) produced more of something it could be traded or sold or donated. We could keep jobs or part time jobs to pay basic bills. We could manage a life in the Matrix, the artificial virtual reality world of civilization, and a life outside of the Matrix in our personal lives connected to the earth and authentically to other human beings. Not as ATMs or resources to exploit or how can I extract labor and money and taxation out of every aspect this persons life and have them do my work for me.
What comes to mind is a spirituality that is of embodiment
I eat food from the garden of the universe
I drink water from the fountain of the universe
I breathe the air of the whole universe
My life comes out of the whole universe.
Being pulled by the gravitational force of the whole universe
I become pure and clear.
The whole universe is where I return.
by zenji Kosho Uchiyama
I don’t know, still thinking over all of this, just a few thoughts or more like ramblings
“This is also from transcendentalism itself there is the “transcendent” and so the body and earth are “lowly”
I think you may have missed that they are not transcending nature/earth but the social bonds of blind-habits.
see what you think of:
starts like this:
“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man! In its fruitful soils; in its navigable sea; in its mountains of metal and stone; in its forests of all woods; in its animals; in its chemical ingredients; in the powers and path of light, heat, attraction, and life, it is well worth the pith and heart of great men to subdue and enjoy it. The planters, the mechanics, the inventors, the astronomers, the builders of cities, and the captains, history delights to honor.”
Good point about transcendtalism in general but that’s Emerson and I have to agree with Mark that there’s an asceticism in Thoreau clearly influnced by Hinduism which has very strong renunciate acsetic and vegetarian aspects. His idealization of vegetarianism ( I was a vegetarian and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and agriculture in his small garden probably seemed to him peaceful and nonviolent, ahimsa, but large scale agriculture is destructive. The field of wheat or corn or lettuce is a clear cut.
You have to cut down the forrest and kill or remove all living organisms, all of the animals and birds, everything, and have a dead barren field then you plant wheat or corn etc… and it has the effect of destroying the top soil over time being exposed to the sun and weather and no new soil being made from dead leaves or animal poop so we have to use fracking to get natural gas to make fertilizer and so we’re essentially now eating fossil fuel.
“According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, the overwhelming direct cause of deforestation is agriculture.”
In his defense I guess in his day obviously it would have all been organic and the amount of deforestation and desertification that result from argiculture and “civilization” were probably not as noticable. And so it would be easy to see new technologies as the or as Dylan poionts out be sceptical of it and dream of a former simpler pre-idustrial way of life or in his case just step out of the urban area and reconnect.
“More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, making the creation of a healthy urban environment a major policy priority. Cities have both health risks and benefits, but mental health is negatively affected: mood and anxiety disorders are more prevalent in city dwellers and the incidence of schizophrenia is strongly increased in people born and raised in cities”
Stress and the city: Urban decay
Scientists are testing the idea that the stress of modern city life is a breeding ground for psychosis.
Living Sick and Dying Young in Rich America
Chronic illness is the new first-world problem.
“In fact, a recent report by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, says that “in some U.S. counties… life expectancies are on par with countries in North Africa and Southeast Asia.”
“It might be that we as a society make an informed decision that, yeah, we may pay the price for it in terms of poor health, but we get to live our lives the way we want to,” he says. “I feel that that’s okay, as long as we are making that choice as informed citizens. The problem is that I don’t think that the American public knows that that’s happening, or that American parents know that their kids will live shorter lives than in other countries.”
“Pooled total prevalence rates for psychiatric disorders were found to be significantly higher in urban
areas compared with rural areas. Specific pooled rates for mood disorders and anxiety disorders were
also significantly higher in urban areas,”problem
hey q, not sure how you leap from home gardening and vegetarianism (as less brutal eating) to factory farming or that Thoreau was more influenced by Hindu asceticism than his mentor Emerson, leaving those puzzles aside anything in his writing that you can point to that turns him from a deep naturalist to a sort of world-denying christianist?
In the episode there was some discussion about his vegetarianism and I was just showing that idealized vegetarianism in post agricultural societies miss what’s really going on and what got them there
The deforestation goes to the very beginnings of agriculture and civilization
“The Neolithic period saw extensive deforestation for farming land. Stone axes were being made from about 3000 BC not just from flint, but from a wide variety of hard rocks from across Britain and North America as well.”
Evidence of deforestation has been found in Minoan Crete; for example the environs of the Palace of Knossos were severely deforested in the Bronze Age.
Early Modern Europe:
Europeans had lived in the midst of vast forests throughout the earlier medieval centuries. After 1250 they became so skilled at deforestation that by 1500 they were running short of wood for heating and cooking. They were faced with a nutritional decline because of the elimination of the generous supply of wild game that had inhabited the now-disappearing forests, which throughout medieval times had provided the staple of their carnivorous high-protein diet.
As for Thoreau
In Walden in Higher Laws
Chastity is the flowering of man; 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.
All sensuality is one, though it takes many forms; all purity is one. It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep sensually. They are but one appetite, and we only need to see a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist he is. The impure can neither stand nor sit with purity. When the reptile is attacked at one mouth of his burrow, he shows himself at another. If you would be chaste, you must be temperate. What is chastity? How shall a man know if he is chaste? He shall not know it. We have heard of this virtue, but we know not what it is. We speak conformably to the rumor which we have heard. From exertion come wisdom and purity; from sloth ignorance and sensuality. In the student sensuality is a sluggish habit of mind. An unclean person is universally a slothful one, one who sits by a stove, whom the sun shines on prostrate, who reposes without being fatigued. If you would avoid uncleanness, and all the sins, work earnestly, though it be at cleaning a stable. Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome. What avails it that you are Christian, if you are not purer than the heathen
much respect dmf
Episode 299 – Solutions
EPISODE-1567- CURTIS STONE ON MAKING A LIVING OF THE LAND, NEW ANARCHISM
interesting mentions of the influence of Walden on Tim Ferriss and Kevin Kelly, three parts but if interested at least part one
Heath Benjamin Adams says
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Thoreau and ‘Walden’ compared to Engels and ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England’ – both published within about 10 years of one another. I finally got around to listening to this episode and when Dylan mentioned skipping over the first chapter ‘Economy’ in the first reading (which is a really great recommendation since I got stuck on that on my first couple of attempts to read this), and it kind of clicked that it’s kind of a description like Engels was trying to write while NOT escaping from the horrors of industrialisation, in fact doing the opposite – getting right INTO it. The former inspires a kind of libertarianism, the latter essentially communism, but both display a revolt from early modernity that still seems to be affecting society and continuing to fuel movements and reactions (like, for instance, New Work).
Great review on a topic close to my heart. Very happy. Trying to be helpful here I can only say that every time you guys come at the word Nature I’m left dissatisfied, as though what appears to me very obvious you can’t imagine. It’s a similar case with spiritual topics. In this case I did hear a murmur of understanding but it wasn’t clear, and it seems to me it could be. Nature is a word that has been quite frankly increasingly abused the closer it gets to modernity, instinct too has been hollowed out, just as spirit, to be Other and Outer, but these are the matters – the only matters the loftiest perspective can see, the Transcendent One is nothing but an honest regard of the natural project, which is first off aesthetic – it is art. The notion tied to instinct of compulsion is mechanistic in origin. To “overcome” nature is to behold nature. It isn’t at that point to conquer it, you would more likely laugh, because you finally see its sense of humor. I could go on about these things.
This episode was so unexpectedly good! After reading Thoreau in high school I lumped him in with the “Noble Savage” nonsense and almost completely dismissed him. Dylan’s(?) comment about collecting stuff (and his kids’ views) in perhaps only 20 seconds convinced me to reconsider. Thoreau still says some ridiculous things, but hey, people still quote Nietzsche. If I completely dismissed somebody over a few lines in a corpus, I’d be no better than the scientists who dismiss Aristotle.
Dan Flack says
So many of these comments end up as complaints,that really do not hold any water.You may not separate the yin from the yang,everything cost.We put the labels on it but we are putting labels that seem to separate us from our necessity..I do what I must ,So that I can do what I want.Great commentary all.
How many of these complaints would never of came up had the basis of the complaints sprang up from their own personal experience living in a survivalist world such as you would in a third world nation,the jungle or maybe as a child in abject poverty here,I have two of the three anyway,lol.
Certainly not complaining about promoting square space or whatever which by the way I am in need of some sort of web presence for my newly opened business.So promote on I can dig it.You are great Thanks much.
Taylor Tutkowski says
I find it interesting that Mark makes a critique on Thoreau regarding him not being “completely isolated” since he had some help along the way. Later the comment is made that he was able to get through the experience since he was well-educated, but others may not have made it through. I always interpreted Thoreau’s ideas as a longing for a society, a lifestyle, where these expectations to go through life performing actions in order to benefit the greater whole does not exist. It would have been impossible for him to go through his days completely alone simply due to the social aspect which is already put into place. It wouldn’t have been possible for him to both survive and go through his experience without any interaction or aid.
Do you think there’s a connection between Marx’s ideas regarding alienation and Thoreau? Marx has opinions that specifically the division of labor can result in alienation among it’s members due to feeling reliant on others… I also see that in Thoreau. He wants to be in charge of his life. To be reliant on nobody- to live for himself. In modern life, is this even possible ?
Also, the more material possessions you have, and the more obligations you take on appears to be distractions. People are simply finding distractions to keep them busy to avoid coming to touch with what’s real, and what’s actually a man made concept….is this important to me, or is it only important because society tells me it’s important?
Very interesting conversation. Received lots of new insight on Thoreau. Very enjoyable!
Jennifer Tejada says
I was oh so sad when I heard Wes say in the Emerson episode that he hated Thoreau. I went back and forth between sadness over his fall from grace and my own self doubt about my ability to discern between good and bad literature. So when he said he loved it I couldn’t have been happier! Yay! He’s back to idol status. 🙂
I love Thoreau. I got hooked into reading his journal and actually read it ONLY when I am going to a cabin in the woods that our family has. It gets me in the mood of slowing and observing nature. I find Thoreau and Darwin to be two of the most inspiring people who help me to turn off technology and get in touch with the sort of contemplative space that happens more easily when you are alone in nature with no cell phone. I think the fact that his mom did his laundry is neither here nor there. There was that movie “Into the Wild” which, IMO, if science fiction shows what too much technology can do, that movie showed what the pitfalls of Luddism are. That movie felt more about ego which is the opposite of the contemplative life IMO. Emerson had it right when he talked about the troubles of traveling. You don’t have to “eat, pray, love” in order to find some kind of truths about life. You can just slow down and be present – which is extremely difficult. I sort of think that people commenting about his mom doing his laundry is that whole fetishizing of hard work or struggle in order to gain wisdom or virtue or whatever. No pain no gain! The puritanical value of the work ethic that shows up in Emerson. I wonder if Emerson judged him for that. LOL.
One other thing – when I read this or Arendt or Heidegger or whoever and they seem to lament technology (even Plato!) or the fast paced life or some version of that it all sounds like “all man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly, alone in a room” (or something like that – from Pascal). It’s all the same issue. Human’s will choose distraction and busyness and anything to avoid what comes up when you are quiet and present with yourself. I’m starting to think that the blaming of it on the current technology is misguided and that it’s just a human problem that will manifest with whatever is available to us to occupy our minds.
Jennifer Tejada says
Also – “beware of endeavors that require new clothes” (or similar). You guys seemed to think that what he meant when he said that people aren’t looking for something to do rather something to be meant related to New Work. And that it meant people wanted meaningful work….
I didn’t get that at all! I thought it was like how people go out and buy all the tennis gear or golf gear or yoga gear, not bc they like yoga or need appropriate clothing rather it’s because they want a tangible item that represents the persona of each of these activities. The people who wear their riding boots and pants to pick up their kids as a sort of status symbol – “I am the wealthy socialite who breeds horses” etc. I can’t believe I have misread it so entirely if I have!!
Ken M. says
When Thoreau speaks of Chastity, I do not take him as talking about the avoidance of sex. Instead, it seems more likely, to me at least, that chastity to Thoreau is something more like avoiding what is bad for you. So Thoreau would likely say sex is not unchaste, but too much sex is unchaste. Chastity is acquiring the desires in the amount that is right for you individually. This is how I read him. I try not to take the words Thoreau uses as they are defined in a dictionary. The Thoreau I know is too clever to use general concepts in such manners.