Henry David Thoreau, an American author and philosopher is known for his book, Walden which advocates for simple living. Between 1845 and 1847, he withdrew into the woods where he remained solitary for two years and two months reflecting upon his life and trying to awaken his soul.
His greatest conviction was rooted in the elimination of waste in ones life and discovering its true nature by avoiding the illusions that confuse real living.
The following is an analysis of what Thoreau meant in this excerpt from Walden.
“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. … To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”
In this paper, I will argue the fact that Thoreau was challenging us to be better than we already are. I will show how Thoreau intended us to understand his statements.
What Thoreau is asking us to do?
Thoreau is taking lead in advocating that people stop committing wholly to their usual stimulants e.g. a cup of coffee (Bode, 342), but rather looks inside of themselves to wake from within, to lift their spirits and make their souls lively rather than their physical bodies. He wants us to acknowledge the fact that the body may be up and about but the spirit remains down and still in deep slumber. He was an advocate of the simple way of life and spiritual awakening was a way he envisaged for the enjoyment of life’s deepest experiences.
Thoreau mentions a dawn or a morning but he was neither referring to the sunrise we know of nor was he referring to the early hours of the day we call morning but rather he wanted people to change the way they view their activities and start a fresh, make a change for a different experience (Daily Philosopher 2). The hours of day are quantifiable but Thoreau refers to the depth of the human experiences that give greater joy that are not measurable.
“Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering?” (Thoreau 142).
Simply, after the spiritual awakening, comes the enjoyment of life and consequently a better quality life.
Thoreau further claims that self awakening is something we owe ourselves. In order to be in a position to please others, one must take it upon himself to please his own self. He makes it sound like it is an obligation we owe ourselves, a moral task (Daily Philosopher p. 3) that is the indicator of the quality of the life we live. He sees every human being as a masterpiece, a perfect craft and adds that it is we ourselves who are the artists of our own lives. Thoreau says that the value of a man is not in his skin, that we should touch him (102).
“We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them” (Thoreau, 165).
The way we choose to live it is the way we turn out, a comparison with how an artist affects the quality of the art he produces. The way we awaken ourselves and become aware of the aspects life around us is the same way the quality of our lives changes. If we tend to our souls appropriately, giving them the nourishment they require, then we grow spiritually and this reflects in our day-to-day activities
“There can no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still” (Thoreau, 98).
This means that when you are awakened spiritually, you find solace in the simplest of things. You could feel the same kind of spiritual satisfaction regardless of where you are, whether enjoying the breeze on a beach or cleaning the house.
The circumstances we are in do not have to change for us to enjoy our lives. When we are spiritually awake, we get more meaning out of life and the details around us and it improves our experiences dramatically. “Individuals nowadays appear detached from the natural bonds” (Worley 81) since they have not awakened their spirits.
In the excerpt, he refers to a conscious endeavor as the initial step necessary for the awakening to be realized. It is to look within ourselves, to realize that we are still alive and make a declaration that we must strive to awaken. The effort, he says, is meant to come from us and we must mentally commit ourselves to do what we feel we must in order for the change to come to us.
“By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent” (Thoreau, 101).
The envisaged effort must not be accidental, nor must it be forced but rather deliberate, a willingness to change stemming from the realization that a vacuum exists. As human beings, we are predisposed to comfort, we always want to stay asleep as our mental strength is often overshadowed by our desire to rest.
Therefore, in order to make a change and be awake, we must dissuade ourselves from the natural urge to resist change as the duality of our complex pushes us to want change but at the same time not be prepared to take the necessary lead to effect the change.
“So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change” (Thoreau 20).
We are happy to just laze around in contrast to being lively and active. The power held in our mind is huge, thus, if we set our minds to change, we inevitably affect it, but the process has to be gradual.
The initial stage in the process involves the realization that we are not getting more out of life as we should be doing, we are not awake to the realities and experiences around us and we do not find pleasure in the small details.
When we conclude the initial phase, Thoreau says that we apply a conscious endeavor. The power to commit lies within ourselves as it is so often replicated in examples of the life we lead on a daily basis.
For example, when a person realizes that he is obese, he endeavors to stop taking junk food and starts eating healthy foods that will improve his condition. It does not mean that he will automatically fall out of love with the junk foods, on the contrary, he is constantly tempted by them but the strength of his resolve will be the determinant in the end.
Such a person must in addition throw out all junk food from his kitchen and in turn stock it with healthier food. In the end, the person will develop a craving for the healthier foods and will forget the junk. The resolve that the person in the example has is the same that Thoreau is talking about. You decide you want to make a change and then direct your efforts to making that change happen.
“Any prospect of awakening or coming to life to a dead man makes indifferent all times and places” (Thoreau100).
On further reading, Thoreau seemed to suggest that the self awakening that he was championing had a limit it one’s mind. You could try hard but in the end, your imagination of what steps to take in order to make the change eventually becomes your limitation. “No man ever followed his genius till it misled him” (Thoreau161).
He seemed to suggest that, albeit these limitations the brain sets, there seems to be a voice within that points us in the right direction. This is the voice of the oracles. There is a higher power that guides and advices us on all matters and it comes from the connection we have with the spirit world. If we call upon the spirits, they help us build on our resolve and in the end we awaken our slumbering souls.
Traditionally, oracles directed the activities of man and made known their intentions via signs that were often difficult to decipher and this task was left to the older generations who had the craft to unearth the hidden meanings. Thoreau suggests that we all possess the knowledge to decipher the direction the oracles point us towards and that what is needed is to be attentive and reflective.
In a nutshell, Thoreau is telling us that if we try too hard, then the information we get from within ourselves is paltry, therefore another source of guidance is needed and that is from the spirit world. Every man is divine in his own way although he chooses to ignore the inner being that constantly guides him.
“How vast and profound is the influence of the subtile powers of Heaven and of Earth” (Thoreau 101)
Thoreau wants us to awaken our spirits in order to enjoy our lives to the maximum. In order to do this, he urges us to awaken our souls and become aware of the numerous experiences at our behest (Thoreau112). In order to awaken our spirits, he proposes a deliberate decision to effect the necessary changes coupled by the appropriate actions, however, he cautions against ignoring the supernatural voice within ourselves that will give the ultimate guidance.
Bode, Carl. The Portable Thoreau, Walden “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” New York: Penguin Books, 1982
Daily Philosopher. Awaken Thyself. 2004, Retrieved on 29 April, 2011from
Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden, or, Life in the Woods ; The Maine Woods ; Cape Cod, Edited by Robert F.Sayre, ISBN: 0940450275
Worley, Sam McGuire: Emerson, Thoreau and the role of the cultural critic. New York: State university of New York press, 2001. Retrieved on 27-04-2011 from http://books.google.co.ke/books?id=TmNuI7sM3G8C&pg=PA176&dq=Worley,+Sam+McGuire:+Emerson,+Thoreau+and+the+role+of+the+cultural+critic&hl=en&ei=zS24TdT0EpDsrQfR09zNDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=book-thumbnail&resnum=1&ved=0CC4Q6wEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false