From Walden
Henry David Thoreau

  

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of people to elevate their lives by conscious endeavor.  It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Every person is tasked to make his or her life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of their most elevated and critical hour.  If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, 

and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.  For most people, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into humans; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.  Our life is frittered away by detail.  Honest people have hardly need to count more than their ten fingers, or in extreme cases they may add their ten 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 thumb-nail.  In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that people have to live, if we would not founder and go to the bottom and not make our port at all, by dead reckoning, and they must be great calculators indeed who succeed.  Simplify, simplify.  Instead of three meals a day, 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.  People 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. . . .

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails.  Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry—determined to make a day of it.  Why should we knock under and go with the stream?  Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows.  Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill.  With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses.  If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains.  If the bell rings, why should we run?  We will consider what kind of music they are like.  Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe. . . .

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.  I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.  Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.  I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.  I cannot count one.  I know not the first letter of the alphabet.  I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.
   

Walden (first published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods) is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self reliance. It details Thoreau's experiences of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts. Walden emphasizes the importance of solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature in transcending the "desperate" existence that, he argues, is the lot of most people.

More on life.

  
   

It is not death that we should fear, but we
should fear never beginning to live.


Marcus Aurelius

  


 
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