Thoreau On Living a Beautiful Life

Tim Farrand

This post was originally published to my personal blog in September of 2020. As I am preparing to move into a new apartment, I found myself reminded of Thoreau as I confronted decisions about what is worth keeping versus what should be given away. Sharing this with you is a reminder to me to reexamine what is necessary for a beautiful life.

A Beautiful Life

On July 4th, 1845 Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) moved to Walden Pond where he lived for “two years and two months” in a house that he built for himself “a mile from any neighbor” for the purpose of living according to what was “necessary of life.” An account of his experience can be found in Walden, Thoreau’s ode to simplicity.

Thoreau writes:

"By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it."
         (All quotations are taken from Walden.)

This experiment was to reveal how little one really needs in order to live. Thoreau’s aim was not to restrict life but to free it from all the constraints that civilization has arbitrarily put upon itself. The goal was to strip everything that did not produce fulfillment, thus leaving out everything that leads to misery. He noted that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

"…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run."
David Thoreau in 1856

We have tied ourselves down with what we consider necessary without much thought as to the price we pay as a result. How much of our lives have we spent on these necessary things? We justify our complicated lives by telling ourselves that we “must do” this or “have to” do that. But how often is it really necessary we do any of them?

Thoreau found that we need “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” everything else we add should only be taken on if it brings joy and fulfillment to our lives. There is no need to burden ourselves with unnecessary things. How much richer would we be if we considered every action by the amount of life it gives? If we could only step back and consider what is necessary and meaningful, then we would realize the abundant weight of the superfluous things we insist upon carrying around.

"But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before."

And what of things that we feel we simply cannot change? Thoreau would point out that you must be viewing the situation through too small of a lens.

"So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre."

  Thoreau’s solution was to strip everything away and add only what leads to a “beautiful life.”

“Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation…”

Take a look at your life and see how richer you would be by subtracting that which is not necessary. Maybe you will not gain riches in terms of wealth or possessions but you could gain what is even more important: a beautiful life.

June 14, 2021

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