Thoreau will be forever associated with the notion that a greatly simplified life that does not emphasize material possessions can be a source of spirituality and peace. In fact, this is a common view put forth by aesthetics and religions throughout the world. It is difficult to argue with Thoreau's perceptions: he did find a more peaceful life (for the time that he was living at Walden) and certainly his spiritual views were strengthened by the time he was able to devote to his thoughts and to his observations about nature.
A simple life brings peace. Thoreau's Walden stands as testimony to the value of a simplified life. It is bolstered by Western thought that individualism, self-determinism, and critical thought enable people to take the high road. The Western notion of rugged individualism was underscored by this experiment in living that Thoreau set out for himself in the forested outskirts of the village of Concord in Massachusetts. People in developed countries across the globe approximate Thoreau's experience -- during vacations and holidays, while engaged in outdoor sports (fishing, though perhaps not hunting), in campgrounds and recreational vehicles (RVs and trailers), and when siting and purchasing rustic second homes. Contemporary attempts to align with Thoreau's admonishment to simplify are achieved only after considerable expense and the travails of travel. Regardless of the practical considerations imposed by modern society, people do find a degree of peace and declare that they experience spiritual benefits through a simplified lifestyle.
Nature promotes spiritualism. Thoreau wished to convert others to his "very natural and pertinent" lifestyle, but he also wished to establish for himself a "broad margin" that would enable him to pursue this writing ambitions. The creative space that Thoreau enabled for himself permitted him to engage in observations -- both internal and external, focused on the natural world -- in a manner that is typically not available to people engaged in the relentless machinations of industrial society functioning at full tilt. Most people have memories of isolated experiences, such as that recorded by Thoreau when he reminisces about a winter morning just at sunrise when on the water lilies on the pond open to the first warmth of sunlight and "whole fields of white blossoms seemed to flash open before me, as I floated along, like the unfolding of a banner." However, for most people, these memories or peak experiences are small in number -- memorable, perhaps, because of their rarity as much as their intensity. Thoreau is like many other artists and writers who seek environments that enable their creativity and independence of thought. And with this comes opportunity to develop deeper spiritualism.
When he built the cabin by Walden Pond, Thoreau was 27 years old, a Harvard graduate ranking 19th in his class, and had not found a niche in which he experienced either a sense of belonging nor success -- as defined by society at large. The Weltanschauung of the time was solidly romantic and theological. Emerson and others elevated nature to sacred status, claiming that, "every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. The idealism of the time provided the foundation for Thoreau to describe himself as "a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot" in addition to being a self-described autobiographer. Thoreau's journal observations came to about two million words that describe with subtlety and refinement his solo experiences in nature, chronicling moments when he was overcome with awe and wonder. With the same wild-eyed sense of adventure -- and the same certitude of purpose -- as John Muir, Thoreau took his appreciation for nature and solo expeditions to -- among other places -- the rugged coast of Cape Cod and the summit of Mount Ktaadn in Maine. And like Muir, Thoreau always returned to his own beloved patch of wilderness.
Renaissance and revolution. The writers of this American renaissance drew deeply from the thinking of English 17th century writers who saw correspondence between the small and interior life of the self and the large and exterior world of nature. Thoreau had little difficulty making these connections in his quotidian life. He is at once actor and observer. His ability to observe was doubtless facilitated by his liberty to follow his own inclinations and establish his own schedule of attending to tasks -- and determining if tasks did, in fact, need his attention. He describes a bout of housekeeping during which he views the totality of his belongings laid out in the clearing:
It was pleasant to see my whole household effects out on the grass, making a little pile like a gypsy's pack, and my three-legged table, from which I did not remove the books and pen and ink, standing amid the pines and hickories ... It was worth the while to see the sun shine on these things, and hear the free wind blow on them; so much more interesting most familiar objects look out of doors than in the house.
(Thoreau 1894, 2004)
From this quotation, the reader is given insight into Thoreau's ability to separate himself from his possessions with what seems to be religious clarity. The strength of Thoreau's position -- temporarily liberated from the constraints of a society preoccupied with industry and achievement -- is made salient through his new capacity to observe benevolently that which he has customarily condemned. In the Walden chapter "Sounds," Thoreau comments on the rustles and calls and noises of nature, and with approval that seems slightly out of can't, the whistles and track racket of the Fitchburg Railroad train which is chugging along the edge of Walden Pond.
Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied. It is very natural in its methods withal, far more so than many fantastic enterprises and sentimental experiments ... I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odours all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain.
(Thoreau 1894, 2004)
Thoreau was a puzzle to his contemporaries and they to him. He wrote that he did not find any advice from his seniors to be of merit in the nearly 30 years that he had lived. Rejection of the standards and values of the larger society did nothing to elevate Thoreau in the minds of those who did accept the inevitability of the yokes that they would bear. Thoreau's perception -- perhaps quite apt for the time (or even any time) -- was that, men "lead lives of quiet desperation" and permit their circumstances to drive them like slaves to the inevitable point when they have "no time to be any thing but a machine." Thoreau was as independent in his thinking as might be an Indian yogi or a Buddhist priest. He was able to step outside of the social expectations of his culture and find deep satisfaction and peace.
Accurate though Thoreau's observations may have been, his perceptions may have been well colored by the fact that he had a backup for any folly, should he care to avail himself -- his father was a pencil manufacturer, which placed Thoreau somewhere in the social strata known as a gentleman. Though his liberty may have heightened his ability to observe nature, it seemed not to enhance his observations about the conditions under which his (and for all practical purposes, less liberated) fellow. His self-absorbed assessment is difficult to read: "…to maintain one's self on this earth is not hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely…by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living." Thoreau's writings seemed to project that all of his readers were similarly positioned -- single, male, and well-off.…