Some Thoughts On the First Two Chapters of 'Walden'

The Highest of Arts

In the second chapter of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden", entitled "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For", Thoreau is critiquing, as William Stringfellow or Walter Wink would put it, "the principalities and the powers" — that is, human institutions, which feed on our vital life. These vampiric machines, of which we are supposed by our cultures to become cogs, dehumanize us. They are agents of death and sleep, or "somnolence" as Thoreau put it earlier in the chapter. This is the immediate context as we find him turning the discussion, in a way reminiscent of the German Romantics, to the relation of this numbing somnolence and moral activity:
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? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

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 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 morally we can 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.

A Misconception of Thoreau

There is an odd difference between the real Thoreau and the popular conception of Thoreau. The oddity is that the man was explicit about the fact that he lived very near Concord and regularly conducted business there, as well as even dining at restaurants with friends on occasion during his time at Walden Pond. All this he mentions without defensiveness even in the first two chapters of "Walden".

And yet many people still think of Thoreau either as some rugged ideal of his own idealism, or a hypocrite attempting to sell himself as something he was not.

Thoreau was a philosopher, and in his philosophies an idealist in that he wanted humanity to strive for a high moral ground, even if the practical result fell short. Thoreau demurred about his own accomplishments in the experiment at Walden Pond, not fooled into believing that he was himself a great example of living the ideals he prescribed. There are a few places where he expresses this, including this admission in the second chapter: "I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?"


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