It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!
–From “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau
In rereading Walden for the first time in twenty years, I see how much he was rebelling against social conditioning and mental sludge. His vow to live deliberately had more to it than simplifying his lodgings and his diet. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he writes. We are trapped by an enormous amount of peer pressure and willful make-believe.
“It is never too late to give up our prejudices,” he writes. “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.”
He tells us to read the classics in their original languages (“I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature.”), to beware of technology (“But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.”), to value our private opinion of ourselves more than any public opinion (“What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.”) and to stop checking the news (“Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.”)
The practice of eating animals is another example of how we are blindsided by what is accepted as normal behavior: “I have no doubt that it is 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.”
I think Thoreau’s main enemy is the deeply human need to be approved of by others. We do things because everyone else does. We think things aren’t possible for us because we see ourselves through the lens of those maintaining the status quo. We are pack animals desperate for “likes” on Facebook. We are terrified of rejection. In rereading Walden, I see that Thoreau’s act of boiling everything down to its essence is an act of rebellion against social rules and regulations.
He moved into that tiny cabin in 1845 as a way of separating himself from the multitudes and trusting that voice inside his head. I’m sure his closest neighbors thought he was a madman.