Henry David Thoreau
(A philosopher and naturalist returns from the woods to deliver a message: Wake Up! Think! Live Meaningfully!)Walden Pond (Photo courtesy of Walden Pond State Reservation)
The account of Thoreau’s temporary retreat from civilization and the philosophy he developed and tested during that time, is perhaps the greatest single work in American literature. I say this not so much because he was right, not because he got the nature of the cosmos straighter than this or that thinker. Rather, this work is great—I say perhaps the greatest our country has produced—primarily because in it we see a man who is awake. It is not what he gets right that is earthshattering here, but rather the fact that he sees that there is a right to be gotten, so to speak, and that he bursts the strictures of convention to strive for it, and that he so eloquently exhorts us to do the same. Thoreau here is a crusader for examining our lives, for living well, for life itself! In a world of so many petty tensions, so many lures into complexity and distraction which decompose any central vision or purpose in our lives, Thoreau opens his eyes, looks about him, and realizes the great harm we are slipping into unaware. He sees the “quiet desperation” of people about him, and the empty catalog of assumptions and dry truths they (we!) harbor in place of a real, living, mission statement. He, as if by a sudden revelation, is horrified at the masses of humans like lemmings who are content to follow the path over the cliff into the sea of meaningless existence simply because the way is worn clean and so is the easiest to tread.