At times when I am overwhelmed by petty concerns, anxieties, and the like... I time and again return to one author for a centering dose of sanity: Thoreau. Thoreau is the archetypical American Hobopoet... our American Lao Tzu. He is, in my opinion, the greatest American writer (that I have read). And so again, this week, I returned to Walden... and again I find my mind calmed and clarified by his words. Here are a few quotes that, on this reading, particularly resonated:
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly the need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add in his toes and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail...
Instead of three meals, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion...
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. men say that 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 any consequence.
News & Current Events
And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in Winter,-- we never need read of another. One is enough. 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. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip.... shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous.
There is some of the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building its own nest... shall we ever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house. Where is this division of labor to end? And what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.
"But", says one, "you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?" I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a great deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.
With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike.
Bosses and Wage Slaves
As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.
Business & Trade
But I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles, and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.
As for Doing-Good, that is one of the professions which are full. Moreover, I have tried it fairly, and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution... What good I do, in the common sense of that word, must be aside from my main path, and for the most part wholly unintended... There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts call the simoon, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his good done to me, --- some of its virus mingled with my blood. No, -- in this case I would rather suffer evil the natural way. A man is not a good man to me because he will feed me if I should be starving, or warm me if I should be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one. I can find you a good Newfoundland dog that will do as much. Philanthropy is not love for one's fellow-man in the broadest sense...
Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as his is dirty and ragged and gross... I was wont to pity the clumsy Irish laborers who cut ice on the pond, in such mean and ragged clothes, while I shivered in my more tidy and somewhat more fashionable garments, till, one bitter cold day, one who had slipped into the water came to my house to warm him[self], and I saw him strip off three pairs of pants and two pairs of stockings ere he got down to the skin, though they were dirty and ragged enough, it is true, and that he could afford to refuse the extra garments I offered him, he had so many intra ones... Then I began to pity myself, and I saw it would be a greater charity to bestow on me a flannel shirt than a whole slop-shop on him...
Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated my mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it. I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind... [A man's] goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious...
I believe that what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail. Let this be righted... and he will forsake his generous companions without apology. If, then, we would indeed restore mankind by truly Indian, botanic, magnetic, or natural means, let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our own brows, and take up a little life into our pores. Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.
Many of our houses, both public and private, with their almost innumerable apartments, their huge halls and their cellars for the storage of wines and other munitions of peace, appear to me extravagantly large for their inhabitants. They are so vast and magnificent that the latter seem to be only vermin which infest them.
Safety and Danger
The old and infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger, -- what danger is there if you don't think of any-- and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position where Dr. B. might be on hand at a moment's warning..
The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs.