A Close Reading of "Where I Lived and What I Lived for" in Thoreau's Walden
During the 1830's in Concord, Massachusetts, a group of literary men and women set out to redefine the common philosophy of American culture. The reigning philosophy was based on the traditions of John Locke and his "materialists." However, for Henry David Thoreau and the others who were a part of this literary group, a new way of thinking was in order. While Lockean theory held that everyone was a blank slate -- tabula rasa, and that men were made up of their outside experiences and education (Geldard 10), there was another idea -- that each person had the inherent capability of answering life's most metaphysical questions; the only thing a person has to do is tap into them. Transcendentalism was thus born from this form of thought and Walden has been hailed as the sacred text of Transcendentalism (Geldard 94).
The fundamental tenets of Transcendentalism consisted of ways in which the human could "tap into" their highest consciousness, which could be achieved through self-reliance, solitary meditation, communion with nature, the didactic reasoning of the Greeks, and the Eastern spiritual idea of finding a god from within (these latter two being known also as the Perennial Philosophy) (Geldard 9). In Walden, Thoreau documents his attempts at the execution of these tenets of Transcendentalism. The piece recounts Thoreau's journey to a piece of relatively desolate land where he spends two years, two months and two days living an "examined life" of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust (Geldard 96). His sojourn to nature places his writings in the transcendental ideals, particularly in its adherence to an Eastern spirituality that is inherent in their philosophy. This idea is quite apparent the section of Walden, "Where I Lived and What I Lived For." Thoreau illustrates the transcendental adherence to the Perennial Philosophy and its Eastern Religious complexity; this is evident specifically through his focus on higher consciousness through contemplation.
Thoreau's Walden shows the transcendentalist author yearning to live life deliberately. For Thoreau, the trappings of life in Concord during the 19th century made a man feel as if he were sleepwalking through life. This idea of "sleepwalking" through life is the opposite of living deliberately in that it symbolizes man going through his daily routine in the hopes of living tomorrow. But what if there isn't a tomorrow? What did life mean then? Thoreau believed that in order to live life deliberately, one had to do away with all the superfluous trappings and find purpose. In Walden, Thoreau is inspiring people to wake up to life and find meaning in their daily lives. By going to the woods to live deliberately, Thoreau is showing the separation of man from society and depicting man as a part of nature.
In Thoreau's aforementioned passage, Thoreau was stating a real concern about where he was going to live, yet he also has a more Transcendental concern -- the meaning of life. He wants to live in nature, commune with it, so that he can understand more of the world through nature. He has a very big concern that if he doesn't do this, he is going to die not knowing the truth, and this could be the worst possible thing for him. He is prepared for whatever he finds in nature -- whether good or bad. If it is bad, then he is happy to have found this out, but if it is good, then he will know this goodness firsthand. Essentially, either way he makes out, he is better off for knowing and for really having lived.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…" (Thoreau 85). This first sentence is important because Thoreau is saying that by living deliberately, he is living the way that he wants to live, not the way that anyone else or society thinks that he should live. It is his life and he wants to live it the way he wants. At a much higher plane, Thoreau is also saying that living deliberately is something that many would like to do, but it is nearly impossible to do because none of us came to life deliberately -- that is, nobody came to this life saying, "I want to live." Life is something that just happens to us all whether we want…