COVID-19 experts prescribe that we should socially distance ourselves from our neighbors. In his time, Henry David Thoreau (writer, philosopher, and poet), encouraged another form of social distancing. Thoreau advocated distancing not to avoid contagious disease, but as a means to evaluate who and what the human person truly is. He observed that the modern world had left the average man and woman, “no time to be anything but a machine.” For Thoreau saw that the modern world has abolished the ontological mystery of what constitutes a human being.
In this time of mandated lockdowns and social distancing, I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with this great American writer. Thoreau is difficult to categorize on a political scale. The left has been unsuccessful in reducing his message. His master work, Walden—a world classic—was an experiment in social distancing, yet its goal was not to divide mankind, but to unite us in our common destiny throughout time. Thoreau was appalled that his neighbors were more concerned with being rich than with being free, and distressed that modern inventions which increased leisure and diffused luxury also decreased the inner cultivation of the human person.
More than a century and a half ago, in the spring of 1845, Thoreau built a small $28 house on the outskirts of the town of Concord, Massachusetts. He declared the “restless, nervous, bustling, trivial nineteenth-century” a triviality because it encouraged men and women to conform to a closed system. One that did not recognize them as creatures with human souls on a journey between time and the eternity. Thoreau warned of modernity diminishing men and women exclusively to the sphere of economics, whose only longings are the satisfaction of material needs. “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.” He wrote in Walden that his age had “camped down on Earth and forgotten heaven.” Thoreau always lifted his gaze to eternity.
It was said that his mother found the little boy lying awake one night, long after he had gone upstairs, and she said, “Why, Henry dear, why don’t you go to sleep?” “Mother,” said he, “I have been looking through the stars to see if I couldn’t see God behind them.”
Thoreau concerned himself with the development of the person, and the nourishing of the human soul. Dissenting from the popular culture, he challenged the whole notion of progress. “While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them.”
When a telegraph connection was made between Maine and Texas, Thoreau opined that it may well be that, “the two states have nothing important to communicate” to each other.
He was one of the first to question whether our modern inventions give humankind control over time and space, or whether they actually control us. He asked whether we ride the railway, or whether the railway rides upon us.
He was critical of newspapers, as being composed of superficiality and gossip. He encouraged that we “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”
Thoreau asked questions that would be appropriate during this pandemic, such as “what is the meaning of human life?”
This spring’s pandemic shutdown points to the fragility of human existence. Modern men and women have been trained to believe that they are in charge of the world. We avoid the deeper questions of la condition humaine with our perpetual busyness. Then suddenly, the pandemic turned off the diversions of our materialistic society, increasing our isolation and leaving us bewildered—lost in the silence of too much time, and with no ability to live with ourselves.
The virus shut-down gave us a pause to look around and explore what really matters in our lives—to stop and see the world as it truly is, and look elsewhere for consolation.
Thoreau encouraged that we live more deeply in the reality surrounding us—the one that we often ignore in our efforts to “make a living.” Thoreau thought that “making a living” was antithetical to genuine living. He sought the eternal verities, and the deeper reality of the created world around us; one that is beneficent and cheerful. He urged that we live so as to get in touch with this creative power and distance ourselves from the busy world, which stifles the delights of spiritual elevation.
Many academics have reduced Thoreau to a mere naturalist, but he was not a scientific or laboratory type. He wasn’t interested in dead plants or dead animals. He sought the living reality and mystery of things.
He once said of Nature, “She must not be looked at directly, but askance, or by flashes: like the head of the Gorgon Medusa, she turns the men of Science to stone.”
Thoreau’s social distancing at Walden Pond was an innovative, independent experiment to “rise to a higher and more ethereal life;” to open ourselves to the love and reverence of creation.
A week ago, I traveled on the Fitchburg Commuter rail line, the same railroad tracks Thoreau knew, which passes the site where Thoreau made his house in the woods. I sought the spot where Thoreau, despite the whistle of the train, domesticated his more wholesome, integrated visions of reality and spiritual wholeness.
Today, there stands a replica cabin at Walden Pond. When I arrived there, I was greeted by a sign posted on the door reading, “In an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Mr. Thoreau’s cabin is closed.” I smiled to myself, thinking Thoreau would rather go to jail than wear a surgical mask.
There was no Coronavirus in Thoreau’s time, but there was a far deadlier killer in Tuberculosis, which afflicted him and claimed his life when he was only 42. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that he “never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace.” On his death bed, his aunt asked, “Henry, have you made your peace with God?” Thoreau answered pleasantly, “I did not know we had ever quarrelled, Aunt.”
Unable to enter his replica cabin, I went to his gravesite to pay tribute to the man whom Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter Rose, a Roman Catholic nun, saw as “possessing the self-denial of a saint.”
Thoreau intuits a mysticism and harmony that envelopes life, but which cannot be possessed. His life was one of constant expectation.
Praying at his grave site, I thought that if Thoreau had lived another twenty years, he might have joined several other Transcendentalists (including his close friend Orestes Brownson) in converting to Catholicism. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his unfinished work Septimius Felton, models a character on Thoreau who is, “brooding, brooding with his eyes fixed on some chip, some stone, some common plant, as if it were a clue and index to some mystery. When he lifted his eyes, they would be some kind of perplexity, a dissatisfied, wild look in them of perplexity, as if, of his speculations he had found no end.” I believe the dissatisfaction Hawthorne spotted in Thoreau may have led him to the Roman Catholic church, if he had lived long enough.
I found myself making a cross on his grave with the surrounding acorns. Later, on the train back to Boston, I realized that the gesture was the perfect one for Thoreau, who always sought that intersection between the natural world of time and its timeless dimension.
[Photo Credit: Supplied by author]