The best life is the examined life

Experimenting with Life

“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 all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…” (Walden, 86)

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau built a cabin on Walden pond and lived there alone for two years. His goal was to conduct an experiment on how to live well. He did this by paring down his life to those things that were necessary, to live “Spartan-like,” in hopes of discovering those essential features that make life worth living. He wanted to see what life is and what it could be, cleared of all the distractions that we, as a society, have built around ourselves. For Thoreau, these distractions not only block us from seeing what life is, but even from asking ourselves the question, “How should I live?” Most of us “lead lives of quiet desperation” moving from one distraction to the next, complicating our lives with concern for things that don’t really matter (8). Thoreau echoes Montaigne’s concern that “every man rushes elsewhere and into the future, because no man has arrived at himself” (On Physiognomy). Walden is the product of Thoreau’s experiment. It’s bursting at the seams with insights into the human condition, and provides us with a rough path on how we can “live deliberately.” 

The first thing we need to do is to wake up to our lives. To recognize, and consider seriously, our own aspirations and desires, and not live the somnolent life that others want us to live.

“To be awake is to be alive…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” (85). 

For Thoreau, every morning is not just the start of a new day but a start of a new life. He talks of bathing in the pond every morning as a “religious exercise, and one the best things which I did” (85). The dawn ushers in the potential for a spiritual rebirth, a time to look at things anew, to start over. We are not condemned to our past patterns and habits. We are not condemned to live a life that our family, friends or society tries to force upon us. We need to awaken to our own unique potentialities. As Nietzsche contends there is not going to be another person like you. 

“At bottom, every human being knows perfectly well that he lives in the world just once…and that no coincidence, regardless how strange, will ever for a second time concoct out of this amazingly variegated diversity the unity that he is” (Schopenhauer as Educator).

This idea of awakening is grounded in Thoreau’s belief that we are not static, fixed beings that cannot fundamentally change who we “really” are, but are dynamic, ever changing creatures that must use our life experiences to mold and shape who we want to be. We are responsible for crafting our own lives well. 

“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a 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 we can morally do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour” (86).

So we must take special care in how we craft our character because our beliefs about ourselves and the world can affect how we see things. We do not see the world objectively as it is, but as determined by our character, that is, subjectively. In his journal Thoreau writes,

“Objects are concealed from our view not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because there is no intention of the mind and the eye towards them.”

“The actual objects which one person will see from a particular hilltop are just as different from those which another will see as the persons are different.”

This in turn, can affect how we communicate and interact with the world in general, and with people in particular. For Thoreau, who we are, and thus, what we see, is up to us. He frees us from the belief that our past inevitably determines who we are today and who we want to be tomorrow. Every morning we can start anew and break new ground. We can do this by figuring out what things are important to us and by thoughtfully attending to them, rather than letting our attention be distracted by things that don’t really matter. 

How do we do this? We need the spiritual space to dig deep into ourselves. This is what Thoreau calls solitude. For him, solitude is not loneliness. 

“I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers” (128).

Solitude is a state of mind, not a physical separation from people or things (128). Solitude, for Thoreau, is connected with his communion with nature. It is at these times that he feels fully alive. 

“This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself” (122).

But Thoreau also acknowledges other spaces for solitude. A farmer tending to his field or a student in a library absorbed in studying (128). It is about engagement, not passivity. Solitude gives us the opportunity to feel fully alive, and helps us to uncover and exercise our potentialities so that we can craft a unique self. 

Thoreau determined that building a cabin near Walden pond was what he needed in order to awaken to what was truly meaningful in his life, and that it could help him direct his attention towards the right things in order to build a better self. For most of us, going off to the woods for two years is not an option, but we can foster an environment at home that can help us craft better lives. This could mean mediating, going for a walk, reading, writing, gardening, playing an instrument, or whatever else connects you to your deeper self. This can provide us with the solitude we need so that we can “live deep and suck all the marrow of life.”

(Excerpts from “Walden and Other Writings,” Modern Library, New York, 1965)

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Experimenting with Life by Philosophical Living is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Leave a reply