Henry David Thoreau?S Walden Essay, Research Paper
Simplicity and Freedom in Walden
In chapter two of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, entitled “Where I Lived, and What I Lived for”, there are two themes that run throughout the narrative. The key theme that emerges continually is that of simplicity with the additional theme being that of freedom. Thoreau finds himself surrounded by a world that has no true freedom or simplified ways, with people committed to the world that surrounds them rather than being committed to their own true self within nature.
Simplicity is defined in the Webster’s Dictionary as a simple state or quality; freedom from complexity; absence of elegance and luxury; uncomplicated. In the world today, many people think that a computer, cell phone, or fax machine may make their world simple, but these technologies make the world we live in more complex than simple. Somehow there is confusion between simple and easy. It is most certainly easier to phone someone from your car rather than pulling over to a pay phone and getting out a quarter. It is also easier to put a letter in the fax machine rather than addressing an envelope and putting a stamp on it and walking it to the mailbox. These two instances that have been described are, in fact, easier, but not simpler. Simple is not having to figure out how to use the cell phone or fax machine and, at the same time, having these two items cluttering our space. Fewer people communicate through cards and letters now because we have e-mail and fewer people go to the library because we have the Internet. These are great items and they may make life easier, but not simpler.
Thoreau craves the unsophisticated way of life. He agrees that too much stuff does not make life simpler, but more congested.
The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense. (6)
By calling the internal improvements external and superficial, Thoreau is saying that these improvements do nothing for the nation but cause more anguish and headaches. A person might think that they could make themselves better by buying fancier clothes or getting an expensive haircut, but what does that really do for the internal self? When all improvements are made, a person only has an expensive hair salon bill, department store bill and a lot of clothes that only make the person look good to other people. These improvements, within the nation, could be considered stores, restaurants, highways, cinemas, gas stations, and factories. These are things that are supposed to make our life simpler and freer, but they are just more developments that bind us. These improvements, to other nations, could be seen as “superficial”. What happens to the green grass that was once beautiful to look at and to walk barefoot through? It becomes a paved way for our automobiles to drive upon. What happens to the clean air that we once breathed? It becomes polluted with fumes from cars and factories.
As if in a rage, Thoreau exclaims, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand…Simplify, simplify” (6). Thoreau wants us to set aside all of the trivial things in life and look upon the real and true aspects of our lives. There is no need for material possessions when we have a world full of beauty that God has created for us to enjoy. What do we need with a house full of knickknacks that only clutter and collect dust? There used to be a time when children would collect lightning bugs or run around the yard with the dog or read a book for entertainment, but now a child cannot live without Nintendo 64, Playstation or Nickelodeon. This is not the child’s fault, it is what society has heaped upon us all and it is as if we are all victims of the “superficial” improvements.
Along with simplicity also comes freedom. Freedom is a word that has different meanings to different people. According to Webster’s Dictionary, freedom is defined as being free; exemption from an obligation; not under the control or power of another; independent. By this definition, no one person is truly free. Thoreau stresses this point by saying, “It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail” (2). Thoreau explains that we, as free people, have choices to do as we please and with those choices come more commitments. With every choice, comes a consequence. We can choose to buy a farm with so many acres and beauty all around, but we are then committed to paying for that farm, mowing the grass, feeding the animals, and harvesting the garden. The only real value of the farm, the close contact with nature, can be had for no cost. Thoreau found more freedom in his small hut by the pond where he was truly free from the trivial life of living in a village. He was free from the commercial rat race and was able to let himself be roused by nature.
If Thoreau were still alive today, he would probably be astounded at how committed we are to so many things. The world that surrounds us has developed into a hurry up and wait situation. We are constantly in a hurry. We live in a world with drive through windows and breakfast bars. If we continue to hurry through life trying to get everything done so quickly, when do we really enjoy our life and our freedom? As Thoreau states, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” (6).