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The Essentials of Life – The Story of Henry David Thoreau

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Towards the end of March 1845, David Thoreau (he added the name Henry when older) borrowed an axe and began constructing a small cabin on the shores of Walden Pond, in Massachusetts, in the United States. Thoreau’s aim was “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.”

Thoreau’s experiment was to live surrounded by the wilderness, yet only a mile from the closest village. Thoreau’s time at Walden gave him the space to contemplate life while at the same time not being shut away from human companionship. Thoreau grew crops, mainly beans and other vegetables, the sale of which helped pay for his living expenses, but he spent most of his time at Walden reading, writing, and walking in the forest. 

Thoreau’s extensive reading included writings of Ancient Greek philosophers as well as the Bhagwat Gita. He wrote, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.” This helped Thoreau arrive at a philosophy for living based around three fundamental precepts.

Simplicity

Thoreau felt that to live a good life one needs to give up the constant acquisition of material objects. He concluded that “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” In our modern world, where we continuously accumulate more and more physical artifacts, we would do well to follow this advice.

Independent Thoughts and Principles

Thoreau wrote that “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.” His independent thinking led him to be a leading anti-slavery proponent. He spent time in jail when he refused to pay toll tax to the local authorities. He said he did this because he opposed the then US Government allowing slavery and its unjust war against Mexico. Thoreau stood up for what he believed to be right.

Thoreau’s essays on Walden and Civil Disobedience inspired Mahatma Gandhi in his fight for independence. Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and a most practical man. He taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced. His essay is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.”

Preserve and Cherish Nature

Thoreau was one of the first environmentalists. His time at Walden and his travels in the countryside made him respect and cherish nature. He wrote, “What we call Wildness is a civilization other than our own. In Wildness is the preservation of the World. What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?”

There are many additional facets to Thoreau. He faced the tragedies of seeing his elder sister and brother die at young ages. He was a Harvard graduate but refused to pay the five US dollar amount required to get a copy of the Harvard diploma. He resigned from his first job as a teacher because he would not physically beat errant students. He was always inventive and developed a new way to make pencils in his father’s pencil factory.  

Above all though, Thoreau, who died at the young age of 44 due to tuberculosis, continues to inspire new generations. Regarding his time at Walden, Thoreau wrote, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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