March 8, 1959
The story of Thoreau is one of the most interesting, probably, in English literature, and the peculiar survival of his book, Walden, points to the basic instincts of millions of persons. Although all this grand experiment which he made occurred more than a hundred years ago, in times quite different from our own, the book has never lost its basic vitality for gentle and thoughtful readers.
The influence of this book has reached out into many countries and has affected the social and political development of nations far from the consciousness of the original author. Mohandas Gandhi paid a wonderful tribute to Thoreau, declaring that Walden had exercised a powerful influence on his moral character and the development of his concepts of a simple way of life for the people of India. That such should have been the case is rather evident, for Thoreau had some understanding of Asia, and in his book, he quotes many of the literary sources of Hindu scriptural writings which were favored by the Amazonian group in Concord during his time.
Indian philosophy reached New England through the Transcendentalist group, which included Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson was a personal friend of the young man and assisted in the financing of his education. At least he interceded for Thoreau at Harvard, and the young man therefore received an excellent education. His indifference, however, to academic procedure is clearly indicated in his book, and when the time came for his graduation, he did not feel that it was worth the five dollars expenses involved. So he never officially graduated.
The study of Walden depends upon some type of knowledge of the author. We cannot divide a man from his work, and most books that have impressed history have been to a major autobiographical. In order to understand the attitude of Thoreau, we must come back to perhaps the most famous story associated with him, and that’s the story of the Thoreau lead pencil. His father had been considerably concerned with experimenting in the manufacturing of an efficient lead pencil. This fundamental article, that was later to become of the most commonplace of our utilities, intrigued the young man who improved the design, made it more and more efficient, and produced in the end a completely satisfactory lead pencil. According to his contemporaries who congratulated him mightily on his achievement, his fame and fortune were assured. The man who could build the best lead pencil would be an immortal. However, Thoreau declined to receive the approbation and announced firmly that he never intended to make another lead pencil. To the astonishment of his friends, he replied simply, “Why should i continue to make lead pencils? I have made lead pencils and that settles it.”
This was the picture of the man. He did not believe in the kind of life which lies in bondage to anything. He did not believe that the human being was in this world to become a slave of policies or possessions. Rather the search was for a free way of life, a life in which man becomes wealthy by needing less rather than by possessing more. Thoreau was convinced that somewhere in the mystery of our existence, we have lost the direct and reasonable purpose for which we were created. By degrees, we have developed one attitude or policy after another. These have become traditional until today, we are slaves of ways of doing things and our energy and our lives which should be devoted to the unfoldment of our own resources, are now in slavery to the gratifications of our desires for comforts, conveniences, and commodities.
Now it would not seem so likely that in 1847 this problem should have burdened a New England intellectual. At that time Concord had a population of two thousand souls. And this little community, hidden away in the beauties of nature, would appear to us to be an almost complete hermitage. In hose days also, as we gain from interesting study of the methodical mind of this poet naturalist, expenses must have been not too prohibitive. He speaks definitely of the possibility of building a good house for a few hundred dollars. He carried all his great ‘back to nature’ experiment extending over two years and two months with a total expenditure, including the building of his cabin and the maintenance of himself throughout that period, for less than a hundred dollars.
It would not seem under those conditions that the economic burden was weighing heavily upon him. But apparently to his mind, a hundred dollars was a symbol, a symbol of the tyranny of economic responsibility. It was not the amount, as we so often say, it was the principle, and Thoreau was fighting against what he regarded as a wrong principle. This principle of the individual dedicating his resources continuously to the perpetuation of a static self within him. A self which was enslaved by needs. And because of this vicious cycle of survival as man understands it, the human being has little if any opportunity to unfold the resources which are naturally his.
Undoubtedly, Thoreau would have been very unhappy had he lived in more recent days. Watching the tremendous pressure developing in our modern way of life, he would have realized that his every fear had come to pass. And that a world was gradually losing sight of the dignity of the individual, the purpose of the individual, losing sight of the essential needs of the individual. And this complete ignoring of essential value may well be responsible for the general increase in psychic tension which we are now enduring as best we can.
Reading the story of Walden, we have to acknowledge that we are in the presence of a work which to us, after the lapse of years, is largely symbolical. Read for the first time, it is interesting, intriguing, perhaps almost a little verbose. The more we consider it however, the more we realize that Thoreau is telling us, in his personal adventure, of a larger and far deeper and more valuable experiment. He has been subjected to ridicule, he has been regarded as everything from a madman to a genius, yet in his own simple way, the entire notoriety which descended upon his experiment was due to his emphasis upon basic principles which men had forgotten or had ignored in their endless struggle for personal advancement.
Each of us therefore, in taking the story of Thoreau, must apply it according to the kind of world in which we live. It is quite obvious that we cannot retire a mile from the center of town find a pleasant mill pond isolated in the forest and build there a cabin in which we can create a hermitage and do all this for a negligible expenditure, and here, sun ourselves around the calendar. Such a way of life would probably not only be impossible to us but contrary to our basic instincts and inclinations. If we were so fortunate, according to perhaps our own desire, to be able to attain such solitude and isolation, we would shortly fall into madness. For instead of finding quietude in aloneness, we would find a wretched isolation, so different from our present way, that in a few months we would hurry back to the shelter of our conventional way of living and thinking.
Also today, the responsibilities of life are rather different from what they were in the days of Thoreau. The average person cannot break away from the pattern of responsibilities which burden him. Yet in some way the instinct of escapism, a return to nature, is strong in many and perhaps in a healthy way is present to a degree in most. Therefore, the story continues to intrigue us, although it becomes more and more a utopian vision or spectacle, peculiarly key to a time far different from our own.
It is therefore in the light of this that we must understand how a man like Ghandi was affected by this story. Certainly, India was nearer to the pool of Walden than our way of life. But we find in this Indian leader, the rise of a strong and powerful modern purpose, in which the works of Thoreau became a source of subtle inspiration and indirect support. Therefore, there is a way in which a work of this kind, though so strange and distant to us, may yet have meaning.
To Thoreau, the story of ‘back to nature’ is identical with the concept of ‘back to self’. That somewhere, some way, each individual must experience his existence in a true world. A world not fashioned by his own imagery. A world that is not the result of the interlocking of concepts, but a world which has a closeness to the earth. A world of values that are direct, natural, simple, and inevitable.
If we cannot, therefore, go to this world from our own abodes, then we must bring this world to ourselves. We must discover it by a code of conduct or a series of internal revelations, so that if nature around us is denied us, nature can still live within us and become the basis of a normalcy and a vitality which can carry us over the doubts and problems of the years.
Under various research experiments today, we are making discoveries that are of great interest — philosophically, religiously, psychologically. Among these discoveries is the increasing realization of the potential universality of man’s inner life. We used to believe that within man there was a mysterious darkness, hiding a spiritual core, and that this constituted largely his interior construction.
Today we realize more fully that every power and faculty within man is capable of numerous developments. Among others, visualization, that all of the sensory perceptions have their own works within man. And under a hypnosis, under certain drugs that are being experimented with, it is learned that man can and does become keenly aware of a universal interior existence. That this interior existence, like the Elysian Fields of the Egyptians and Greeks, it’s not merely a remote paradisical state, but that within man is the primordial Garden of Life. That in his own nature he can restore the Odinic world that he hears of, or reads of, in ancient sacred writings.
In our dreams, we can find ourselves in rich pastures with beautiful flowers, we can escape into mountains and valleys, we can build our hermitage under the walls of a great cliff or hill, and watch a stream run by the door of our retreat. We can visualize or relive all of these conditions in ourselves, because they are in ourselves. We can restore Walden’s pleasant pond and perhaps understand better than Thoreau did why this pond was only a mile from the center of the busy community in which he lived at that time. The quietude of the forest, the gentleness of solitary places, these moods and qualities are within us. And back to nature and back to self become increasingly important as directives, and as goals, while we observe the results of our artificial ways and our false allegiances.
Thoreau therefore, tells us in the beginning of the importance and dignity of simplicity. And from the standpoint of the modern psychologist, we perhaps can restore something of this in terms of analytical symbolism. The average person, under analysis, must first unload. He is filled to the brim with psychic acidities. He is loaded with a sour and useless wine that has not been well preserved. He is therefore, internally sick. He is sick because when he attempts to find the natural solitudes of his own life, he comes face to face with chaos.
Modern analysts are becoming less anxious to unlock the subconscious life of man, because when they do so, from this pandora’s box, there comes forth such a host of pests and pestilences that it seems they cannot be controlled. Thus what we call civilization is a veneer of restraint. It is a surface frustration, a kind of shell beneath the surface of which, like the thin crust of the earth beneath Mount Vesuvius, is a seething turmoil of fire and lava. This thin crust, then, of our self-control, this surfacing made respectable by ages of cultivation, covers an area which is dismal and difficult. And we dare not live, except upon this surface. For if we arise above it, we move into worlds we know not of, and if we descend below this surface, we enter into a state of internals which we cannot endure.
There is something very wrong with a way of life that makes for such pressure within the individual. This pressure forbids nearly every legitimate achievement. It comes through continuously in small releases as tension, stress, pain, fear, doubt, anger. It is always interfering with the simple directness of our conduct. It is making us enemies for no reason. It is causing us to be eternally suspicious of things which are not actually the proper objects for suspicion. It also, most of all, detracts from our right to know ourselves.
But when we turn in upon our own natures, what we find is not ourselves. It is the accumulation of other persons in us. It is the accumulation of ages of history. It is the outside pressing in upon us, until it has deformed every internal part of our own natures. So man looking in today finds only the world which he has fashioned. And because outwardly, he has dedicated everything to the creation of this vast monument, which is a mausoleum to his own defeat, he finds within himself only the same barren, sterile regions as those which he has fashioned with the battlefields of his external existence.
Some way, Thoreau sensed this. He realized, even in a far less intense generation, that this was the direction the world was moving. It was moving into an oppressing complexity. It was moving into sickness. It was gradually removing from the individual the vitality to survive. And most of all, the vitality to correct his own faults. The individual became dependent, no longer upon himself, but upon everything else. He was therefore at the mercy of the outside world which he himself had brought into being. Like the characters in Dante’s Inferno, he was being punished by his own deeds, and by the illusions that followed after them.
As he expresses it, this man, this farmer, dragging his house down through the years with him, living for his house, living to clear his land to take away the rocks, living within a small world in which there was no time for reading or forethought or for contemplation because of the endless cycle of the drudgery of existence. Yet out of this drudgery, what did the man actually achieve? He achieved so little. And of that which he did achieve, most went to the survival of the body, upon which he depended for the strength for drudgery. He ate and slept in order that he might work, and he worked in order that he might eat and sleep. And so he went on and on and on.
And this noblest of the creatures, this being with imagination with poetry in his soul, with dreams and hopes and aspirations, as Thoreau says was plowed under in his own furrows. He followed the plow until he died with the plow. And all that was real and beautiful and wonderful about him was locked in this strange concept of the need for a particular and peculiar kind of survival. A competitive survival, based utterly and completely upon a code which he himself had fashioned. He had made his own deadline and he died with it.
Thoreau was not the kind of person, however, who was by nature violent nor subject to the concept of revolutions. He did not believe that there would be any advantage in trying to force men from their present courses. He realized that some persons would be utterly and totally miserable if they were confronted with the opportunity to be happy. Their entire way of life has been dedicated to a kind of martyrdom, and they feel it righteousness, they feel it their duty, their responsibility to share in the common miseries of their kind. They have never been stirred by any strong resolution to correct the misery. They have only been impelled to the virtue of patience, which endures error to the end and never mends it.
This attitude can only today apply to the individual himself in his adjustments with life around it. It is certain however, that the habit of in moderation increases with good exercise. And as any part much used becomes stronger, so the part of us that makes mistakes, when given great encouragement, increases and intensifies. By degrees, we lose any close contact with realities, with vitalities, and with the essential values by which our lives might be more correctly and properly directed.
For each of us therefore, the pond of Walden represents a kind of retreat. And for every man, there must be a retreat into himself. And when he retreats into himself, he should find there, strength. But medical science today, exploring the subconscious and unconscious of the average person, finds not strength but the root of weakness, finds that a large part of man’s internal life is so disordered that he cannot live well.
How then shall we estimate the value of systems? What shall we say of education that permits a man to go through his own life, and most of it with a total unwellness in himself? What shall we say of progress, of culture, of evolution as we recognize it as a social motion of mankind? If these things do not bring with them some security against trouble, what advantage is it to us to measure our so-called progress in terms of our own internal collapse?
What we call progress for man is a progress of and by man. If we are building a way of life, it is valuable only to the degree that it serves us. Nature does not require the way of life that we are building. The squirrel still stores its food for the winter. Grasses grow and trees come forth with their wonderful herbage in the spring. Nature does not demand great cities or great enterprises. Nature lives its own continuance in a simple and direct way. Man of course, does not wish to return to the estate of a woodchuck or something of that nature. But this we must always bear in mind: that if the creative genius of man has caused him to vision beyond nature, as he has seen it around him, then this vision must raise him above nature. For a vision which causes him to separate from nature and then become less than nature is no vision at all. It is a nightmare.
If consequently, our thousands of years of civilization have brought us no more security than that which is enjoyed by the woodchuck, we have not traveled far. If our civilization has not given us an added or greater amount of value, then it has not served us as it should. And if it has not served us, it is because of weakness or defect within it. Thoreau realized that what we call our way of life has become a hypnotic conviction in ourselves, something to be defended whether it is right or not, something that must be endured because it is. And against this fatality, we have no recourse.
By degrees, association with a condition breeds a kind of acceptance. Our spirit of rebellion ceases and we adjust ourselves to these inevitables. Or else, as in the case of youth, particularly in our generation, we observe their motion into escapisms, into science and into problems of this kind. So man today, in his effort to conquer the moon, finds further excuse to leave himself unconquered.
The Thoreau doctrine was, that it is far more important for the individual to achieve a kind of victory over confusion, and to reintegrate himself as a being, than it is for him to expand his resources into innumerable avenues and areas which can bring him no satisfaction, unless he himself is capable of being satisfied, which today he is not. Pleasures around man bring no pleasure to man unless that man himself is pleasant. Securities cannot confer themselves upon a person whose inner life is insecure. Regardless of how many benefits a man may enjoy, he is neither safer nor richer than his own contentment. In obscuring this, in attempting to conceal it from himself and others, man does a bad turn to all concerned. It is a matter of seeking first, true value, and upon that building a world. But if we build a world before we have the value, the world we build may be deficient in value. In fact, may be relatively valueless.
Knowing that we cannot, and probably should not, attempt a wide rebellion against these different patterns, we have however, a broad term: Nature. Thoreau was a naturalist but a theoretical one. In many ways, he was more of a poet and a mystic, than he was a sober scholar. In fact, his sobriety was no part of his philosophy. He believed in living, according to a kind of happy madness within himself, with complete disdain for the opinions of his fellow men. It was necessary that he had this disdain or he could not have survived the pressure. He was a free soul; he lived and died a free soul, a master of his own destiny and a captain of the ship of his own life.
If then, he had this freedom, this peculiar ability to penetrate sham and pretense he tried to leave a record of this quality and pointed out how valuable it could be, particularly as the walls of pretense grew higher and stronger with the passing of years. Nature, as he found it by the pool of Walden, was a very pleasant thing moving through seasons One thing he discovered was, that man to live must work, but that man to live must work in the most simple way, that his needs were so essentially few that with a few square yards of earth, he could scratch in existence. But his neighbors insisted that this was little better than pauperism, that the individual who was content to raise from the earth only his food was indeed a poor man, lacking ambition, lacking that drive which causes success and brings with it reputation and regard.
Thoreau’s philosophy on this subject was rather simple, also: If you do your work with your hands and allow your hands to feed your body, then your mind is free to feed your soul. Where if you put mind, hands, spirit, soul, and body all behind the plow, you can plow more rows, but you will die ignorant of everything that is good. That the individual who converges all his resources may attain wealth but die ignorant, which is the supreme poverty of all. For the individual to be without dreams is to be pauperized. For the individual to be without hopes, moving into the natural and beautiful things of existence, is to be impoverished beyond any concept that we know.
Therefore, according to Thoreau, he rather admired some of the old folks in the poor house, because actually, the sun shone on them just as brightly as on anyone else. And it was far better to have this very strange, sad and simple life than to be under the tremendous tyranny of success, by which the individual betrayed his friend, exploited his own, neglected himself, and practiced treason against his state all for an almighty dollar.
The individual who lives below himself cannot respect himself. And when man loses self-respect ,he loses his greater fortune. Thus there must be some way, without being impractical, without being foolish, without going out perhaps and building a log cabin with your own hands, there must still be a way to rescue nature, to rescue our contact with it. And as he fumbled for an answer, Thoreau reminds us much of the teachings of Taoism in China. This wonderful power of simplicity, this reduction of all things to their essential, for the purpose of buying for man not goods, but life itself. Dealing in a coinage of contentments, not depending upon various diversions to achieve peace, but rather to find peace itself, the full and complete expression of a way of life endeavor.
Thoreau then, began by a psychological experiment which evidently was natural to his own nature. He scarcely expresses it in words but he certainly implies it in his conduct at each step of his great adventure at Walden Pond. He began to cast off the ballast of false value. He recognized that you cannot free yourself by further entanglement, and that there is no delusion greater than that by which we deceive ourselves by saying, “When I have achieved this, when I have accomplished that, when I have amassed those things, then I shall retire and enjoy myself.”
No man lives so long. Because by that time, he has created habits, habits themselves so contrary to his enjoyment that he has become a slave of them. And when a time comes for him to retire, it is not the man but his habits that collect the pension. He simply continues to be what he has always been, for he has lost the power to change. If then we are to retire and enjoy life, we must retire at the beginning while we still can. This does not mean that we shall stop work or cease to provide the natural means of our survival. But it means that we shall retire from an illusion, from the delusion of career, the delusion of success, and shall begin from the very start to practice those values which we hope to enjoy at 70 or 75 years of age. There is no reason why we should hold our enjoyments until that period in life when we are least able to enjoy them, or to wait for our vacation to the time when infirmities may make it impossible for us to ever take one. For no individual can take a vacation from rheumatism or hardening of the arteries.
From the beginning therefore, our life should have within it the pleasantries of nature. And if we are, by instinct, lovers of the wilderness we can also cultivate certain early associations with mountain and river and stream and desert and seashore. These associations are the least to which we are entitled from our labors. And if we must buy life by our works, then we have a right to spend it as we will. Others however, do not find escape to the mountains or to the valleys as pleasant as they expect, or have little if any inclination for such return to nature. They however, likewise, need the circumstances involved.
Perhaps the pool of Walden is our own subconscious. Perhaps it is the inner symbolism of the deep mystery within the heart and soul of ourselves. And by the side of this pool, which is our inner life, this pool like that of Mimir at the roots of the Tree of Life in the Nordic legends. Here by this pool, we build our little hermitage and observe the endless circle of life moving around us, moving actually within us, in the fulfillment of its own seasons, its climates, its times and its dispositions.
Thus, we all live by the side of the inner pool of our own psychic selves. And we can study this pool and its depths, and observe the wonderful life that lives within it. And we can see everywhere things living, things moving, things constantly fulfilling their destinies. And we can become observers of great motions in nature, of the heavens and of the earth. And we can observe all these things toward the attainment of a certain serene humility, a gradual recognition that we are not here to defeat Nature, but to fulfill her. That we are not here to gain a military victory over the earth, but rather to come into partnership with the earth. That we are here not to be masters over life but friends of life. And that our greatest victory is when we help others to succeed. And perhaps the greatest victory of all is when we help Nature to attain her victory over us, rather than to forever combat her ways and fight against her moves.
Now, anyone on the outer level of things can deny Thoreau’s concept. Anyone can point out that nature is eternally encroaching upon man, that man must fight nature in order to survive, but it depends upon the kind of survival that he contemplates. If he wishes to survive against nature, he must fight her to the end. And she will win .But if he wishes to survive with nature, he may unite his resources with her own and come to a splendid victory. Again, it may be said that this is all theory and platitude, that it has little to do with the pressing facts of living.
But how comes it then, as Thoreau points out, that the pressing facts of living lead only to death? Why is it that the individual, following what he calls practical ways, comes always to misery? Why is it that the path of glory, as General Wolf said, leads but to the grave? How can we be so sure of our way of life, so confident of our concepts and policies, only to wake each day more weary with them all, to find less and less that is meaningful, and to gain an ever increasing suspicion about our neighbors and an ever increasing doubt about ourselves.
Something has to be awry — it was not intended to be this way. It was not intended that we should suffer through these years in constant servitude to antagonisms and strife, binding our national histories with war, binding our private lives with sorrow and conflict. What is the reason? And, perhaps Thoreau would say it is because each of us has overlooked something, and that thing we have overlooked is the need for what the modern religionist terms retreat.
Retreat is a return to quietude, and every individual at one time during his lifetime should have the experience of quietude. He should sense its archetype within his own nature. He should begin to recognize the importance of a new and intimate association with value, especially this value within himself. Today, more and more of our Western peoples are practicing religious retreat. This is rising in many sects and creeds. This retreat, being the going away for a few days, for a week or two, perhaps annually or when occasion permits, to some religious cloister. There to remain quiet, apart from the world, for a little while. Not to neglect duties forever, but to find some way of rediscovering the possibility of interior contentment. The possibility of experiencing the strength of an integrated inner life. And that in this experience must lie the beginning of the correction of the evils of our times.
Until we begin to have some faith in internals, some vision of eternals, we shall continue in this terrible cycle of confusion, competition and conflict. There has to be a reorientation, in which we discover wherein lies our hope of value and security. That this security does not come to us through our bank accounts or through our investments, but through our ability to exist, apart and away from these things which we have learned to regard as inevitable.
In nature around us, we observe constantly the strength of the individual. The individual does not know that it is strong; it is strong by an instinct stronger than life itself. Out in the forest, the mother animal bears her young, alone, and apparently without apparent fear. There is no physician, there is no society to protect her, there is no one concerned about her. Yet in her own quiet and complete way, she performs the mystery for which she was created. And she continues to care for her young in a wilderness. And yet in this wilderness, except on rare occasion, she finds little cause of unusual anxiety. She expects danger, she is prepared for it, and yet she faces it herself. It is not possible for her to call the police, or ask for help, or to depend upon a strong society to protect her. Yet alone in her own way of life, she has for countless millions of years, preserved the life type of her kind, and has gone on and on without cities, without great institutions, simply because of a strange instinct, an instinct which is more important because it is vested in the security and inevitability of internal resource.
We cannot go back to her way of life and everything, but we can sense that we live in the weakness of perpetual dependence. That we have learned not even to think for ourselves. We cannot plan our own daily menu, we cannot do the common chores of life. Everywhere we must be helped, we must be assisted, we must be supported and carried. But in nature, there is a wonderful directness of action. An action which reveals that each thing has its survival in itself. And some way, on our level as human beings, without becoming self-centered, selfish, or actually isolated, we must learn something of this lesson. That each individual is his own physician, that each individual is his own teacher, that within himself is his consolation and his refuge. That this does not deny his religion but perfects it. That this does not separate him from his brother, but causes him to meet his brother upon a higher level of integrities and values.
The individual who is internally integrated meets his brother without avarice. When we have found security in ourselves, we do not rush to others to supplement our weakness, we go to them rather to share our strength. And this endless dependence upon people, which we often call regard, is endless selfishness, depending upon other people for the strengths and values which we have lost in ourselves.
To find these things again, to make them real in our purposes, is to build our little house by the shores of Walden Pond. Here we can begin to contemplate the values of life itself. Nature perhaps can convey to us the wonderful power of its ever flowing inevitability. It tells us that we are living in the midst of a universe that is stronger than we know. That the universe around us has not decreed weakness, that it has not conferred these blights we suffer from. The universe, nature the world, these great unities confer that which is necessary. They are everywhere productive of reasonable abundance. And man, by making fair use of both the abundance and the opportunity, lives in a universe that can provide for him all that is needed for his security and peace of mind.
Rather than to continue, however, man has changed his point of view. He has forgotten that nature supports life for purposes. And that these purposes must advance nature, or nature will turn and revenge herself upon those that pervert her ways. That man must live, must attain value, is natural, right and proper. In the days of Thoreau, men work from sunrise to dark, and your farmer often far into the night and before the dawn. The life of a farmer in those days began at three or four o’clock in the morning, and ended only when it was too dark to see anything further to do. Then there was a brief reading of the bible, if the family was devout, but this was kept short because by artificial light, the candles burned out. And a candle was valuable; it must not be burned too long.
Thus, for perhaps the produce of a dollar a day, men worked. And a man buying a farm for a thousand dollars would require 30 years to pay for it. These things have all changed. Man has escaped the drudgery. Thoreau points out this terrible drudgery, the man wandering through the earth with a farm hung like a millstone around his neck, burdening him from the cradle to the grave, and leaving this burden as a heritage unto his issue, usually with a mortgage on it.
Yet, man has improved his estates greatly since that time. Today he lives better. Today he owns more. Today he has more freedom and time and opportunity than was ever known. His hours of work are limited. Now he has two full days a week, usually, in which he can do almost as he pleases. His hours, however so shortened, have not brought the hope for results
I’ve read many early works on socialism, and various movements in this country in the great rebellion period against the tyranny of 12 and 14 hours work hours a day. They said in those writings with great optimism, that when these hours are shortened, when men have only a 10-hour day, only six days a week, which was the dream of that time,. That then out of these rather limited and tragically deformed frames that we call mortals, there would arise a god. That with this leisure time, we would rebuild the world, that wars would end and friendship would come, because a man who had an extra hour every day would spend it improving himself, reading and studying, and serving his neighbor, and doing all kinds of wonderful things. Music would come to him, art and literature and travel. And because he might hope to get the mortgage paid for before his death, he would have long, quiet years of contemplation. Because they didn’t know then that those long hours and months and years would be spent fighting freeway congestion.
And so we have reduced the hours, but we still do not see human beings taking this wonderful leisure time to become gods. They are not. They are going on much in the old way, as Thoreau suspected that they would, because within themselves they have not yet come face to face with the fact of life. They have not come to know that man is a peculiar creature, and that he is capable of being something more than a beaver. That it is humanly conceivable that he has a destiny, separate from that of the stolid ox. That he is actually capable of being a creature of the air, a creature of dreams, of hopes, and of inner life. That he is capable of a kind of creation, by means of which he unfolds the deepest and richest parts of his own soul.
He simply has not found this out. A few have and have become the free dreamers of our worlds. But for the most part, we have no concept that man has a different destiny than the worm. We wish to be super worms, super beavers, and in this we are content. We wish to buy time in order that we can waste it, on the ground that indolence is the final proof of success. An individual who no longer has to do anything is considered to be the most enviable and the most important. We make leisure the symbol of aristocracy. The common man works, the successful man has other men work for him. The idleness being the end sought, but seldom achieved, because no man is idle while he has to worry. This takes up the leisure of our race.
To make this pool side retreat, is therefore to begin to experiment with some textbook that is suitable to give us the sense of value. Thoreau believed that if a man could sit down for a little while, away from men, and could find himself again in the relation of the world, that if he could see his own smallness, if he could fit himself, even for a time, back into nature, he would gain a most useful and valuable point of view.
Thoreau did not advocate, nor did he practice, a perpetual retirement. In two years and two months he left his little pool by Walden’s oaks and never returned to it again. He had finished his experiment. But he had proved conclusively by his experiment that man, actually, has his feet but lightly placed upon the earth and that most of himself is truly in the sky. That those things which bind him to the earth have been so distributed by nature that every inducement has been given to man for his own freedom, for his own right to grow upward into the light of the destiny for which he was planned and fashioned.
Nature has not opposed him. Nature does not tell him that he must labor from the cradle to the grave. Nature has provided him an abundant pattern, whereby he may protect his needs and advance his purposes. But he has so limited his purposes, that he has only been able to divide and subdivide the very earth. He has never escaped into his true destiny. He has never sensed the values that could be his.
But from this contact with a larger way of life, one mood may arise in man. And if in a year or two of thoughtfulness this mood comes, its value is almost beyond calculation. And that uh sense of mood value is in the effect that man is within a vast pattern. And that it is his privilege to grow with this pattern and not against it. That it is not necessary for him to struggle in order to survive. The only reason he has to struggle is that he has created false standards of survival which require eternal defense, and which are in themselves not defensible. He must therefore give his life to prop up something that must naturally fall.
In this thinking, if he can gain what Lao-tze calls this sense of Tao, this sense of movement, this dance of life as Havelock Ellis described it. It is that life is a magnificent, sweeping motion. That this motion is so simple that the child already understands it, and yet so strangely mysterious, that the very process of living seems to destroy it in us. We have no direct contact with this motion. We have forgotten the miracles of nature and have become hypnotized by the pseudo-miracles of our own achievements.
We think tremendously that soon we will reach the moon, and yet around us in a flower box are miracles far greater and far more significant to ourselves. Always escaping from the need to estimate value, we substitute the continual pressure of our false patterns. If this were not true, we could not assume that our world would be in the condition it is now in. If our ways were right ,they would lead to solutions. Ours are not; they lead nowhere. And we are drifting with a tide of adversities, closing in upon us.
From the standpoint of therapy, which was very close to the thinking of Thoreau, we are now struggling with a mechanical solution to the ventilation of the human psychic life. The only thing we can think of really to do is to try to get rid of the pressure by opening the safety valve. The safety valve in this case being analysis, or hours and hours and hours of telling our troubles to an analyst, at from ten to twenty dollars an hour. If we do not get rid of our troubles, we at least get rid of some of the byproducts of our activities, in the terms of profit.
This is good under the existing condition because we have no better way. It has served many valiantly and helpfully. But if you should tell an engineer that the only way to prevent a boiler from exploding is to open the safety valve, he will point out that there is another way, but nobody has thought about it. And that way is to keep the steam pressure low in the first place. We never get around to that. The boiler will not explode unless first of all we build a fire under it. Therefore, we may end all problems of safety valves and things of that nature if we simply do not permit the steam to reach an unreasonable degree. This is far safer and easier and requires considerably less continuous attention.
n the life of the individual it is helpful to let off steam, but it would be far better if we did not have to go through this procedure. But no matter how thoroughly our therapies may function, any physician can tell you simply, that a body that has not been sick is a better body than one that has had to be cured of a dozen ailments. Even if at the present moment the health seems good, the body that has not been sick is the better body.
This means that prevention is very large in our pattern of things, and the prevention of tension can only come from one essential process. And that process is the reorganization of our own relationship to the internal life which is moving continuously through us. This internal life has its seasons, its tides, and its currents. And like all other aspects of nature, it is by nature, benevolent. But it is under certain pressures and forces caused to appear malevolent, but this is due not to nature but in this case to man himself. If we are capable of reorganizing this natural world within, we will not be merely serving a symbolism but a very great reality.
Actually someday, we are going to know that we could change the direction of our sensory perceptions, and were we able to turn them inward as we turn them outward, we should discover in ourselves not a hole in the dark, but a tremendous vista of universal expanses. We should discover that as truly as we can look out upon a great plain, with its forests and trees and rivers, so we can look in to a boundless natural universe. That there is no tree or shrub outside of us which does not have some symbolic equivalent in our own internal universe.
The nature around us, and the nature within us, form together a common communion. A when the within and the without are in harmony, man is well. When the nature in him and the nature around him have formed a powerful camaraderie of purpose, that individual is in harmony. And being in harmony, he is capable of the greater achievements which for man is possible. These achievements include the serenity of his life and the advancements of those projects which are peculiar to his kind. Man can never be happy until he uses the powers which he possesses, and until he uses them as they were intended to be used.
Man will never be happy until he makes use of that part of himself, which is not as Thoreau says, bestial. Man can never be satisfied merely because he imitates some industrious insect or some laborious animal. We will find no greater political or social or cultural organization in the world than that of the ants. Nor can we find a more perfectly integrated society than that of the world of the bees. Yet man is neither an ant nor a bee. He has something else. He is not able to fulfill his destiny merely by copying or even improving upon a pattern of life which is not essentially for him and never has been. His feet are upon the earth, and here he must create foundation suitable to his needs. But his whole earthiness is for the purpose of maintaining within him his wonderful harmonic adjustment with heaven and the sky and the universe. Until he is concerned with his own largeness, he must fall over his own smallness.
Until he finds his purpose, his work in life, he can never be a contented creature. We see the young adolescent person, struggling to decide upon a career in this diversified society of which we are a part. We are always assuring him that, in order to be adjusted, he must find his job, adjust to it, create his home and settle down and be a good citizen, and then life will be simplified for him. This is higher optimism, but there is within it a certain core of truth. Mankind, as a collective, will wander with uncertainty until it passes through its adolescence and finds its job.
Thoreau believed that only in the perspective of nature can man receive, non-dogmatically, the instinct or the insight which will enable him to realize what this job is. He knew as well as we know, that the more we preach to persons the more they will resent. That you cannot force a job upon anyone without creating his discontent. He must discover. And he must discover by coming into the presence of something bigger than himself. He must also discover, by being brought into the awareness of something bigger than the way of life which is obviously not big enough. He cannot discover by being placed in the midst of a man-made world that is falling apart. He must discover by being brought back into the realization that man-made things are but incidents in a god-made plan.
He must come nearer to that plan, and Thoreau believed that in nature, and in communion with nature, man came face to face with bigness, with non-preaching instruction, with the strange and wonderful tolerance of nature. And he found that nature in all our ways, is wiser than man. That nature does not divide creeds or sects or races or classes or clans. Nature serves all its creatures and provides each of them with certain instincts and equipments, suitable for the best expectancy of their survival. Nature also rewards insight and growth, punishes sloth, and strangely advances the destinies of those things which strive most sincerely to make use of the powers and faculties which they possess.
Nature also has indicated to us, by bestowing upon us an internal insight, a power to dream, a faculty to hope, a wondrous imagination to be fired with nobility and glory. Nature has given us all these powers, but we have not used them. We have not recognized their relationship to our need, and for such reason, we are punished. Punished for failing to make use of the faculties and aptitudes peculiarly unique to us and for which, therefore, we have a unique responsibility in this great plan of creation. Nor does nature create things solely for themselves. As each creature fulfills its purpose, it binds that purpose to the common good. If any creature, therefore, fails to fulfill its own purpose it retards nature and detracts from the common success which nature has planned and intended.
By the side of the pool, man observing a real and practical world, a world of wonders more miraculous than miracles, a world of challenge, a world of insight, may gradually relax his false worship of his own achievements, and come back again to the recognition of a simple partnership with life itself. Out of this partnership must come happiness, must come health, must come adjustment, must come all these things that are good for us. And in discovering and recognizing and fulfilling these requirements in our own natures, we make personal decisions of the greatest importance and most enduring value.
Until such time as we can find our own inner sanctuary and its completeness, we also observe that in nature, we become instinctively aware that certain resources of faculty and perception and reflection are stimulated in us that are not otherwise called into activity.
Nature is not dogmatic. Nature does not tell us; it shows us. Nature does not create artificial situations, or subject us to the ridicule of its principles and purposes. Quietly, gently, softly, ever patiently, Nature lures us toward the discovery of her secrets. She is forever thoughtful, and has so worded and versed her lines, that the simplest child and the wisest sage both receive the impact of the lesson. The universality of her instruction is available to all who are willing to become receptive to the presence of something greater and stronger than themselves.
This very experience of receptivity is the beginning of wisdom. It causes the individual to become more gentle, more kindly, and by the copying of nature’s way, more tolerant of all things, and at the same time more certain of true value. If man, through the adjustment of his own life with his own internal, can discover nature in himself, he will discover there the quietude and peace that Thoreau found by Walden’s Pond. Man is never healthy, man is never able to go on and carry the burden of this life with dignity and success. He is never wise, he is never good, he is never sufficient until he can approach his own inner life without fear. He is never better than when his defenses are not operating. He must be able to enter into the inner part of his own consciousness, and find there, the natural motions of nature.
This inner life of his must be a pleasant garden, filled with happy thoughts and memories, carrying only the proper flowers of its various seasons. And man must be content in the presence of this inner life. As long as he has to take test after test to extrovert his neuroses, to find out whether he is a paranoid or a dementia victim, whether he has incipient split personality or merely one overwhelming load of frustrations. Whenever we think of man now as an inner being we think only of a psychotic. We never ask if the individual is well inside ;we know he isn’t. When we see him conduct himself, our only concern is which one of a dozen manias is he suffering from, or is it a compound of several? We take it for granted that man is sick inside, and we have very little confidence or very little opportunity to see the reverse.
This is not the way that we can ultimately succeed. The continuance of this is total failure for ourselves and our kind. And we cannot force our way, battle our way through these dilemmas. Nor can we cure anything by demanding that other people accept our various dementias, and be patient with them. These kindly people may be there and sacrifice their own lives for our mental-emotional intemperances. But nothing is solved. The solution lies only in the restoration of internal health. And this restoration is symbolical in the Walden story, for in it we find Thoreau sitting quietly by the side of the pool, too quiet, too happy, too absorbed in the acceptance of life to even wish to fish or to do anything else. All he wishes to do is to permit the wonderful reassurance of nature, the tremendous purposefulness of life, to be felt, to be experienced, to be known. To suddenly discover the goodness of the world, and to realize that all badness is our inability to see this goodness.
And from this simple experience, this acceptance of value, to take into ourselves for the first time the principle of true health. For true health arises from joy, it arises from contentment, and contentment is the one end which our civilization would and should seek to bestow. We are willing to pay for it in terms of labor and sacrifice. But to perform both the labor and the sacrifice and never know the contentment, never to find it in our seeking, is not right. Nor can we permit ourselves to be deluded by a passing moment of happiness, or a day or two when things seem to be better. This is not contentment ,for these days of pleasure can be swept away with nights of grief. Things are wonderful and suddenly tragedy strikes in our worlds crumble. This is not the answer, that by accident or incident we seem to be safe for a little while.
The real answer lies in the rediscovery of our relationship to nature, and I think in the terms of Thoreau, the realization that our association with nature is for one purpose only, Namely, the purpose of providing us with the means to transcend the physical aspects of life. To find not in our advancing industries our goal, but that all things, actually and factually, exist for the purpose of making man’s inner life beautiful. The moment they cross this purpose, the moment they take away from the peace and happiness of man, they are wrong. It is not their use but their abuse which forces this.
Every convenience of man is good till he becomes inconvenienced by it. Everything that we do is not an end in itself, for the real end is that from the doing, we shall become more complete beings. And in the completeness of our beings, we have the completeness of our wisdom, of our understanding of our love, of our health, of our peace of mind and soul, of our faith and our philosophy. Until these things are the complete things for which we strive, we shall not achieve the security we seek.
Therefore, each of us must have this inner experience of retiring into the forest of our own psychic life, there to find again the bonds that tie us with the eternal. Realizing that we are divine creatures in a house of clay, that we should make this house as wisely and as beautifully as we can, is proper. But the man lives not for the house; the house exists to serve the man. Empire, industry, economics, policy — these things man does not live for. They exist for the purpose of serving man. When they serve him they are good. When they enslave him they are wrong. And each individual must free himself from the slavery of the world he has fashioned. And to do it he must return to the real world, the world that he did not fashion, the world he has lost and forgotten, because he was so busy with his own inventions. If he does this and achieves this, I think he fulfills the spirit of the idea which Thoreau attempted to convey.
Next week, we are going to take another book. And that is an entirely different type of book, but not so strangely separate as we might think. One of the most important, famous, and least understood religious books in the world is “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas A. Kempis, and in this we have a subtle account of a kind of mystical experience a vision of divine union. So next Sunday morning we are going to take “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas A. Kempis as the subject for our discussion. I’d like to also call to your attention that the Spring issue of our Journal is now on the table and we hope that you will find it interesting. It contains among other articles, a further section of our study of the philosophy of Paracelsus of Hohenheim. There are articles which I believe will be useful to persons of many interests, including notes of our Sunday lectures that have been asked for.
We have a little booklet called ‘Ten Basic Rules for Better Living’, which is perhaps in the rather simple spirit of the Thoreau way of life. Also, our book, Healing, carries with it material which will be of value if you are thinking of philosophy and religion as instruments of therapy. All right, we also have the two works we mentioned before by Dr. Harding on psychology. She is a Jungian analyst and her writings have been completely understood and accepted as authoritative texts and deal principally with feminine psychology. And as an expert and exponent on this, Dr. Harding is one of the leading women in the field of analytical psychology. So we suggest her books for your consideration.
And we thank you for being with us this morning and hope to see you next week.