I read Walden recently, expecting some nice nature writing and philosophy, and wasn’t disappointed; however, what I did not expect was how prescient and unintentionally funny it was. Henry David Thoreau was essentially a van-lifer in the mid-nineteenth century. There are tons of parallels between the Industrial Revolution and the Computer Revolution, in the economics, philosophy, and overall zeitgeist of the times, and the way Thoreau interacts with other people is uncannily reminiscent of certain people I know. As Paul Graham has said, during the Industrial Revolution many people got rich from technology startups, making their fortunes by taking advantage of new methods of mass production to make things people wanted faster and cheaper. And there was a similar corresponding cultural outlook of individualism and optimism that went along with the tech boom. It should come as no surprise that similar people inhabited such a world.
For some quick background: Henry David Thoreau was born in Massachusetts in 1817, to a lower-middle-class family. His father opened a grocery store, which folded, and then inherited his in-laws’ pencil factory. Henry David had a liberal primary school education and then went to Harvard, with tuition supplemented by various relatives, where he got middling grades. After college, he took over management of his old primary school along with his older brother John, while simultaneously trying to make it as a writer and poet under the mentorship of Ralph Waldo Emerson. John Thoreau died of tetanus three years later, so Henry David closed the school and went back to his folks’ pencil factory, where he invented a new technique that enabled the use of lower-quality graphite. After tiring of this and wanting to work more on his writing, he moved to Walden Pond, an uncultivated part of Emerson’s property, and built himself a little shack there, supporting himself by fishing, foraging, and growing beans.
At one point, Thoreau meets a family of Irish immigrants–a husband, wife, nine-year-old son, and infant–living in a shack in the woods as itinerant laborers, turning bog into arable land for a fee per acre for the landowner. Thoreau tries to convince him to abandon his laboring and to live simply, like him:
“I told him, that as he worked so hard at bogging, he required thick boots and stout clothing, which yet were soon soiled and worn out, but I wore light shoes and thin clothing, which cost not half so much…and in an hour or two, without labor, but as a recreation, I could, if I wished, catch as many fish as I should want for two days, or earn enough money to support me a week. If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a-huckleberrying in the summer for their amusement. John heaved a sigh at this.”
I think this out-of-touch proselytizing is hilarious. Thoreau isn’t himself rich, but he has rich friends and a reasonably reliable family network to fall back on in case of disaster. The immigrant has none of this, and also has a family to support, and is probably putting money away to improve his family’s situation in the future.
Thoreau also shared the modern (or at least Silicon Valley) sentiment that Europeans are old-fashioned and that the future is American:
“…thinking to live by some derivative old-country mode in this primitive new country.”
Thoreau expresses the sentiment that since the world has changed so rapidly, the ancient human way of relying on elders for wisdom and lived experience doesn’t work anymore. He states,
“What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion….What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new….Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost….Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young….I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”
The older generations can’t navigate newfangled institutions like the railway and the post office, and when asked, provide conservative advice based on old wives’ tales, which doesn’t apply to the modern world. A person is at his most productive when he’s young, untethered, and ambitious! Sound familiar?
Thoreau was not a strict vegetarian (“I could sometimes eat a fried rat with a good relish, if it were necessary”), but he preferred to avoid meat when possible, a radical idea at the time.
“One farmer says to me, ‘You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with’; 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.”
This is a funny one to me because my fiancé’s little sister became a vegetarian around 2012, and, having grown up in a more rural part of the US, all her family and neighbors told her the same thing. Granted, Thoreau’s observation that herbivores get along fine is not an apples to apples comparison, since herbivores often have complicated fermenting digestive systems that humans don’t, but it clearly is possible for humans to exist without eating meat.
“I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”
It’s funny to think about a hypothetical cannibal touting the necessity of consuming human meat as part of a well-rounded diet.
He also employs the somewhat questionable argument that one ought not to eat meat if one isn’t okay with killing and cleaning the animal oneself:
“Most men would feel shame if caught preparing with their own hands precisely such a dinner, whether of animal or vegetable food, as is every day prepared for them by others.”
While I am a vegetarian, I’m not a fan of this particular argument, since in an industrialized society we outsource all kinds of tasks due to the necessity of dividing labor. Is it immoral to use a toilet if one isn’t prepared to treat one’s own sewage oneself? I don’t think it follows.
Thoreau was a practitioner of yoga and an advocate for mindfulness. Even alongside all the other habits and opinions of his that fit a modern vanlife stereotype, I was a bit surprised to learn this, since both of these are very modern trends.
“Depend upon it that, rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully.”
“Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own.”
Did he actually coin this phrase? I wonder.
“The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he contemplated his journey again.”
The above is a light example of the appeal to nature fallacy: that since ancient people lived “closer to nature,” they were morally superior. However, Thoreau isn’t wrong in stating that hunter-gatherers had more free time to contemplate than industrialists, foraging an average of 3-5 hours per day rather than the backbreaking 16 hours common prior to labor reform. While on some fronts, Thoreau was guilty of romanticizing ancient ways of life, he also had a pragmatic outlook on modernity:
“Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? …Let everyone mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.”
On life choices
He was a big proponent of living from first principles, making choices not based on inertia, societal pressure, and misconceptions but based on “the laws of [one’s] being”.
“If you are chosen town clerk, forsooth, you cannot go to Tierra del Fuego this summer: but you may go to the land of infernal fire nevertheless. The universe is wider than our views of it. Yet we should oftener look over the tafferel of our craft, like curious passengers, and not make the voyage like stupid sailors picking oakum….Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing….Nay, be a Columbus to whole new contents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”
And he was a bit of a rationalist as well:
“No face which we can give to a matter will stead us as well at last as the truth.”
“For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it.”
Thoreau’s views on rapid communication were almost like many modern snobs’ views on social media.
“Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”
Truly, spoken from a place of privilege.
“When I ask for a garment of a particular form, my tailoress tells me gravely, ‘They do not make them so now,’ not emphasizing the ‘They’ at all, as if she quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates.”
Even in the 1850s, people were yearning for the old days.
“I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free.”
What van-lifer worth his salt hasn’t considered converting a shipping container?
“I think that I speak within bounds when I say that, though the birds of the air have their nests, and the foxes their holes, and the savages their wigwams, in modern civilized society not more than one half the families own a shelter.”
Wow, that one hits home. #bayarea #nimbys
After five years at Walden Pond, Thoreau returned to society, explaining, “Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” He first became a live-in tutor for Emerson’s children, and later a land surveyor and published botanist. He was an early proponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution and a conductor for the Underground Railroad, and his speech defending John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry helped to initiate the Civil War.
While most people’s opinions and morals are a product of their time, Thoreau is a rare figure that would be totally at home in the modern day. Maybe it’s just coincidence–if I were to dig through history and cherry-pick the person with the most modern morals, there are just so many people who have lived that I’d probably be able to find a pretty close match. However, it’s also possible that our morals today are more correct, or closer to the ideal that a human would reach when reasoning from first principles. And if that’s the case, Thoreau arrived at the correct answers a century and a half before the rest of us.