Henry David Thoreau “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”

“Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”

Thoreau presents the reader with a critique on the lifestyles of men stating, “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone”. I found it interesting that at the start, the very property and home he was so interested in purchasing is representative, of what he later decides, is the wrong way to live. His inability to purchase the property he had been interested in for so long became a sort of epiphany and states “I think I shall not buy greedily, but go round and round as long as I live, and be buried in it first, that it may please me the more at last”.  What really caught my eye in this work was the way that Thoreau put such focus on the idea of simplicity, but contextually, the work is full of so much detail and metaphor in every sentence, that it counteracts the simplicity he is constantly referring to. For example (pg. 892, 2nd full paragraph), the narrator states, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds.” I think that this contrast encourages the point of simplicity because the complicated way in which he makes his statements, with the numerous metaphors, and references to other works/history, creates an overly active atmosphere, like the lifestyle of those who do not live simply. He also makes numerous references to international political issues, religious texts, our universe, and other highly recognized texts such as the Odyssey. These references add to the complexity of the content, usually represent a metaphor he makes in his statement, and also incorporate the complexity of our world in general.  Each of these encompasses a complicated idea present in society, for which we cannot escape. Or can we escape such complexities by living the simple life described in this passage?

Questions:

1.     How do you think the references to ideas such as international political issues, religious texts, our universe, and highly recognized texts affect the work and the ideas presented in it? Does it even affect it at all?

2.     What did you think of the speech at the end of the work? Did he incorporate and changes in tone or diction that affect the overall meaning of the work? Is he convincing?

3.     Do you agree with the points he makes as to why we should live a simple life?

4.     What do you think he is trying to say when he poses the following question on pg. 289? “What should we think of the shepherd’s life if his flocks always wandered to higher pastures than his thoughts?”

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3 Responses to Henry David Thoreau “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”

  1. emcd23 says:

    Focusing just on what you said about the simplicity/complexity issue in Thoreau’s work, I find it interesting that you think the complex, “overly active atmosphere” of Thoreau’s writing undermines his argument that we should live simply. I especially like your question of whether we can escape the world’s complexity by living the simple life. To me, it doesn’t seem that Thoreau thinks complexity is a bad thing; as you point out, he’s drawing from multiple outside sources, and he’s also forcing us (through all the metaphors and detail) to see the complexity even in the ‘simple life’ he’s leading himself. Rather, it seems that he’s just pushing us to choose depth of interest over a lot of shallow busybodying. He thinks the best thing in the world is to be “awake” and “alive,” and he seems to be arguing that those who complicate their lives by taking on a hundred differenct concerns never really get to see the truth or importance or joy in any of them (891). If you live simply, on the other hand, you’ll get to see past the chaotic complexity and see into the more ordered complexity that forms the foundation of our world. He seems to encourage people to “live deep” because this is how one “discerns and rifts” their way into “the secret of things”; in other words, he wants us to be ‘simple’ not so that we can be empty of concern, but so that we can be focused (892, 896).

  2. bestrout says:

    I agree with the first comment here. I do not think Thoreau is advocating simplicity in lifestyle because life itself should be simple. It seems he just wants to cut out the “busy work” that keeps a person from realizing his/her (I realize he may not include every individual but I am:) potential as a human being. He writes that he went to the woods because he wished to “live deliberately…to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” (892). To Thoreau, the “marrow” of life does not exist in accumulating material, it exists in contemplation of the depth (the complexity) of the human spirit/mind/form…We read how he saw a connection between the veins of a leaf and our own blood vessels, he asks, “Is not the hand a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins?” (906). These contemplations, these questions and observations are not simple in themselves, but how would we ever be able to consider them if all we ever worry about are our bank accounts, our possessions? The individual is an extremely complex, complicated being, I think Thoreau just wants us to give ourselves a chance to realize our own complexity rather than only seeing the complexities outside of ourselves and becoming trapped in the mindset that we are simple and have nothing much to offer.

  3. gluck987 says:

    I think you pointed out an interesting relationship between the style of the text and the content of the argument, but I don’t think Thoreau’s notion of “simplification” necessarily extends to the use of simple language or the construction of simple points. As we discussed in class, Thoreau doesn’t argue that simplicity is an end in and of itself, but rather a means by which to self-educate and self-actualize. The simplicity he advocates is essentially a way to release oneself from dependence on unreliable or untrustworthy systems of power and control. If we stop contributing to the cycle of supply and demand, to the quid-pro-quo laws of the government, the pressures those organizations put on people will no longer apply to us. As a result, we will be internally liberated, and eventually, the social, economic and legal institutions that guide us towards a predetermined function will become obsolete. In this way, Thoreau utilizes Buddhist ideals in tandem with his own radical notions of anti-capitalism. Simplicity is synonymous with civil disobedience, which is in turn synonymous with self-discovery and eventual spiritual growth. Really, his paradigm of simplification is an amazingly complex one, and it still inspires several dissonant interpretations.

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