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Illusion & Reality in Pursuit of the Simple Life
by A. J. Conyers
“Seek simplicity and distrust it.”
—A. N. Whitehead
A student stopped me briefly in the library for some friendly banter about the length of a reading assignment. (No, he was not complaining that it was too short.) Suddenly his gaze lifted just above my shoulder and focused on a small, inscribed marble rectangle in a garden, just on the other side of the window. “I couldn’t help noticing as we talked,” he said smiling, “the words of Thoreau.” Then, as if he had just found a bit of holy Scripture to refute his professor’s error of a lengthy assignment, he quoted: “Books should be read as deliberately and reservedly as they are written.” I was trumped by an American prophet, or so it seemed.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods is, after all, an American classic on the simple life, if we mean by “classic” a work that permeates and, in an important way, speaks for a particular culture. Its words have appeared, like the words of Scripture, everywhere: mounted on office walls, magnetized to kitchen refrigerators, stitched into needlework designs, and carved into granite monuments throughout this country. Yet, for all of Thoreau’s moral authority, the demons of materialism in America have never been exorcised. Madly pursuing the very opposite of simplicity, we appear to prefer Thoreau in little condensed versions on our coffee tables, so that in the midst of the rush and complication of life we can think of how it might have been, or indeed how it might yet be sometime. We want to think about the woods, maybe, but we don’t want to live there.
The Not-So-Simple Thoreau
Has American culture, after long practice and mature wisdom, abandoned the counsel of simplicity, yet maintained a certain nostalgic attachment to it? Or do Americans simply find the world inevitably too complex to practice an art of simplicity that more naturally belongs to another age? Or are there contradictions within Thoreau’s own idea of the simple life that so oppose nature, including human nature, that it inevitably ends with practical contradictions in any age?
Part of the answer may well lie in the story of Henry David Thoreau himself. His life, at least in its surface features, is well known. He was born and he died in Concord, Massachusetts, his life spanning the middle part of the nineteenth century (1817–1862). Though his family moved briefly from Concord, and he was educated at Harvard, the events of his life centered around the small New England village and its soon-to-be illustrious residents and its literary visitors.
Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in Concord; and if Thoreau had a friend, Emerson was that friend. Bronson Alcott lived there; so did Ellery Channing. Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker were frequent visitors. Here in Concord is where the Transcendentalist Club was formed, soon to have a reputation not usually visited on a small nineteenth-century salon in what was still a relatively pastoral setting. The Dial, one of the most famous “little” magazines in history, was published there only from 1840 to 1844, its pages carrying some of Thoreau’s best known and most highly acclaimed essays. Nathaniel Hawthorne knew Thoreau, as he did others in this Concord literary circle, and described him in a letter to a certain Mr. Epes Sargent as “a graduate of Cambridge, and a fine scholar, especially in old English literature, but withal a wild, irregular, Indian-like sort of fellow, who can find no occupation in life that suits him” (Emerson, Thoreau and Concord in Early Newspapers, ed. Kenneth Walter Cameron [Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1958], p. 148).
We frequently get the picture, touched upon by Hawthorne, that Thoreau was no mere amiable eccentric. There were deep streams of conviction that his acquaintances noted, but they sometimes felt more forbidding than inviting. A certain uneasiness with the world, and even with his own human nature, was apparent. Joseph Hosmer, a contemporary of Thoreau’s, wrote that Thoreau was “the embodiment of sincerity and truth,” but Hosmer was evidently puzzled and perhaps even troubled by Thoreau’s remark that it was “annoying . . . to be obliged to eat two meals per day to preserve one’s health, and what a relief it would be to the race if one meal a week would suffice, but as it is, he is a slave to his body.” Thoreau never attended church (“with one or two exceptions,” Hosmer explains) and was of the opinion that no one could pray for him “any more than another could eat his dinner for him.” Hosmer also commented, “He appeared indifferent to all about him, and sometimes I thought he ‘hated’ himself.” This is the first, but not the last time, the idea of “self-hatred” comes up in reflections on Thoreau.
His singular love of isolation came out in Hosmer’s remarks concerning his childhood: “He perfectly hated street parades and shows, with their band accompaniment, that so generally excites the youthful mind. Nothing could induce him to engage in any game or sport,—he preferred to be an indifferent spectator.” By contrast, “At home [alone] his every wish was gratified and his fancy had free play. One of his peculiar delights and pastimes was to view the bottom of the rivers by torchlight, and he would roam along the rivers and forests, by night and day according to his ‘own sweet will.’ Company seemed to disturb him” (quotes taken from remarks of “Joseph Hosmer of Chicago” in The Concord Freeman [ca. 1880], p. 8).
In his Journal he wrote of the “great relief” when he could “retire to our chamber and be completely true to ourselves [by which he meant himself]. . . . In that moment I will be wholly as vicious as I am” (Journal, I, 240, 241). That there was something of the misanthrope in Thoreau is almost an understatement. He felt the need for intimacy but was too impressed by its dangers and discomforts to follow that tendency very far. Some have argued that his aversion to the opposite sex was a reflection of his latent, if not active, homosexuality. A more convincing view of Thoreau, however, seems to be that he cut a swath of unsociability so wide that few dared to enter. Even in Walden, which some view as a compelling and even joyful work, his depiction of his hard-working and prosperous neighbors is seldom, if ever, affectionate.
Could it be that his brooding misanthropic behavior, his occasional outbursts of anger, and his open admission and even idealizing of his hatred are only reflections of a melancholic temperament, a sort of bohemian excess of a very creative mind? Yet, even if this were so, is it not also an indication of how easily Thoreau adopted abstract and intellectual interest in moral causes, yet avoided the feelings of common humanity that we might expect those principles to imply?
In any event, it is not too difficult to make the case that the same paradox of the abstract and the practical that we find in a society that professes to admire Thoreau’s words, we also find in the writer himself.
Rereading Thoreau, however, I am struck by something that might explain our strange adoption of his thought while wholeheartedly rejecting his practice. Even Thoreau himself seems not aware that he speaks of two different things—very different things—and calls them both simplicity. One speaks of the simplicity of an ordered world, the other of an impoverished world. One elevates life; the other levels it. One appeals to nobility, the other to envy and indolence. One is aristocratic in the best and most constructive sense; the other is democratic in the worst sense. One is the enemy of materialism; the other is only the enemy of the material. One is the reflection of one kind of emotion: love; the other is the reflection of hatred. One draws the world into an ordered, catholic whole; the other drives the world away. One simplifies by making one of many; the other simplifies by rejecting the many and leaving only one. One speaks easily the language of love, the other of hatred. One Americans have nearly lost over time; the other they rejected from the beginning. Let us consider each briefly.
Negative Simplicity: The Elimination of Complexity
Civilization is the ordering of a complex life: it is life in the city, the somewhat intimate living relationships of large numbers of people. It is a life that cultivates, distributes, and employs material resources efficiently; and because it does so, the civilized life is marked by abundance. Life is ordered according to the demands of the human spirit for beauty and justice as well as abundance and ease. Such an achievement, of course, is rare, difficult, and never more than partial. The failures are frequent and spectacular. They make news every night.
Thoreau’s retreat to the woods offers a solution that will always have a certain appeal. It cuts the Gordian knot. He offers the simplicity of meagerness, or one might say the adequate abundance of nature itself. It was an attempt to flee the excesses that make one’s life complicated, to draw near to the simplicity of the unencumbered, the truly free, the mathematical simplicity of the number one. It is solipsistic in design, if not in intention.
What moving to the woods, living in an unadorned shack, with little furniture, taught Thoreau was this: to criticize the interdependence of a society in which a farmer does not provide his own bread but gives “grain of his own producing” to his cattle and hogs and then “buys flour, which is at least no more wholesome, at a greater cost, at the store” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden [Mount Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, no date], pp. 64–65).
Further, it taught him the foolishness of being entangled with material goods such as furniture. He got by with so little that he could move all his household goods out on the ground in the morning, sweep and wash his floor clean, and move the whole business back in the evening. He did this while others were entangled with, or rather shackled to, all their great collection of household goods. He, by contrast, was free from such cares to a greater extent than most realized they could be. “He was a lucky fox that left his tail in a trap,” Thoreau reminds us. For want of such freedom, “man has lost his elasticity” (p. 66). Following this logic he declined a woman’s gift of a doormat, preferring to wipe his feet on the sod before his door. “It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil” (p. 68).
A powerful figure among the literati of the day, William Gilmore Simms, found Walden a very peculiar writing indeed. In a Charleston review, he commented that the essay was “full of speculative interest” about how a person can live in material scarcity, “upon how little he can live and be virtuous; feed and be charitable; clothe himself and others; and test both parties; first as to what they can endure in the way of privation, before he bestows upon either of them a shirt or a supper.” In that mid-nineteenth-century view, Thoreau seemingly had made a virtue of “stinginess,” which is to say, he had made a virtue of a vice.
Positive Simplicity: The Ordering of Complexity
Yet there is something else in Thoreau’s essay that gives it a certain weight and substance. It was not a “modern” thought, but an old one, a “derived” or “reflected” simplicity. It is a simplicity that orders things, giving them their proper value and their assigned place in the world.
Consider how the rich prose of a master can reach from shore to shore and from earth to sky in its allusions, draw upon the treasures of the English language, vary its tone in a single paragraph, and still pull the reader along with ease and simplicity; while the simple but thoughtless essay of an unskilled freshman with a narrow vocabulary and a monotonous style, can bump along and jar the reader so that the experience of reading is anything but simple.
What we experience as simple is more than mere mathematical reduction. Could it, in fact, really require a sense of order, harmony, beauty, nobility, and pleasure? If so, it is not enough to count the nails you used in building a house, or to assume that finding discarded furniture to furnish your carpetless floor is an achievement in simplicity. It might well be an achievement in frugality—and that is something important, certainly—but it is not the whole of simplicity.
The Titanic afloat offers simplicity that eighty-five lifeboats in the foaming brine cannot. The social arrangement aboard the ocean liner is more complex and in that sense less simple. Only one will be captain. Several will be officers, and still greater numbers are sailors distributed among various on-deck tasks. There will be one master chef and dozens of waiters. The affair is more aristocratic than democratic, but as long as it works properly, life can be serenely simple.
The Metaphysical Thoreau
Thoreau was not untouched by the vertical, ordering kind of simplicity represented by the ocean liner. He lived, after all, in an age that still used the language of nobility, one in which egalitarian ideals had not yet consistently expelled all but the certifiably vulgar sentiments. Thoreau’s generation lapsed naturally into expressions of nobility, hierarchy of values, and those notions of the dignity of the human spirit that later generations would gradually find elitist and undemocratic. We can imagine that Thoreau moved easily into the rhetoric of this kind of simplicity without realizing that he had left the argument that was the truly peculiar feature of his essay. What he argues for, in other words, is truly different; but what he argues from goes back to an earlier idea of simplicity.
For example, in reference to literature and reading he speaks not simply of the small number of books that are needed, but of the necessity to keep at hand the best, the noblest, and the highest expressions of literature. He complains that “The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the fertile writers of antiquity” (Walden, p. 98). Find the classics and read them slowly and deliberately; to reject them because they are old is senseless, for “what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?” “We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.” If books are to be read “as deliberately and reservedly as they are written” (p. 99), then one must evaluate, not merely eliminate.
Even when he justifies his retreat from society, his argument draws more from notions of selection and ordering the social life. The distance from town cuts down on the social intercourse, but he argues that this improves the quality of it:
I met several of these under more favorable circumstances than I could anywhere else. But fewer came to see me on trivial business. In this respect, my company was winnowed by the mere distance from town. (p. 140)
In these expressions we can see that Thoreau is not drawing upon democratic sentiments (though that would typically be thought of his overall pattern of thinking), nor is he drawing upon the mere image of horizontal simplicity, the sheer reduction of items in an arithmetical calculation. It is the simplicity of the vertical. It is the simplicity of focus, of evaluation, of seeking the highest and best. He is calling upon an older idea, one that was not so contemporary to his own day, but finds its source in classical and medieval thinking in, dare we say, metaphysics.
While Thoreau may not have realized that he was arguing from older ideas concerning the higher and the lower, the noble and the common, it is not as if he gave it no thought. He could say, for instance, that he found himself with an “instinct toward a higher . . . spiritual life . . . and another toward a primitive, rank and savage one, and I reverence them both.” He follows the argument, again not a modern one but an ancient one, in fact, that the higher ennobles the lower, that sensuality and sloth inevitably pull one down, and the business of human life—its true progress—is to allow the spiritual and the higher to have their ennobling effects upon the appetites and the passions. “We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones” (p. 215).
Metaphysical Simplicity & Transcendent Order
This unoriginal insight, this older Christian sentiment, so prominent in Walden, is what rescues it from triviality or the banality of a simple return to the scarcity, paucity, and wildness of nature. Yet the latter will always be seen as the first object of Thoreau’s work, as well as his modernity and originality. In other words, he seems to argue that getting back to a near-natural state is just the medicine humanity needs; yet, for all that, his rhetoric betrays a reliance on something higher than nature. An interpreter of Thoreau, James McIntosh, took note of this when he said, “Despite all his efforts to love and explore it, a residue of nature remains alien to him” (James McIntosh, Thoreau as Romantic Naturalist [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974], p. 27).
From the point of view of thoroughgoing Romantics, out for an escape from the disciplines and limits of civilization, Thoreau’s frequent recourse to ideas of nobility and a hierarchy of values—namely, his recourse to what makes life civilized—may appear to be a flaw. Yet we can also see that, in truth, it is inseparable from the idea of simplicity as it is understood classically in a Christian view of the world, a view that Thoreau feeds off but also attempts to replace. Here I cannot develop fully what that Christian idea of simplicity would be, and I want to end with only a suggestion of how it might be developed.
Augustine’s Confessions is clearly absorbed with three basic realizations: (1) the goodness of nature as created, (2) the disordering effects of sin, and (3) that God’s loving redemption restores order (or, in other words, “peace”). “We were made for Thee, O God, and our hearts are restless [striving after all manner of partial goods] until they find rest in Thee.” Disorder seeks wholeness, which is another way of saying that we who desire many competing things thus grow desirous of simplicity. But it makes all the difference in the world whether that simplicity is found in ourselves or in God. Multiplicity, distinction, competing desires, all become a threat to us in the one case, but not in the other. “I searched for You outside myself,” Augustine said,
and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. . . . The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all. You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odour. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your [I will paraphrase now] simplicity.
This immediately calls to mind a central teaching of Jesus that one must not be anxious about this and that, but “seek first the kingdom of heaven, and all these things will be added unto you.”
Simplicity centered in God works by addition, not by subtraction; it is the ordering of complexities, not the elimination of complexities. Henri Bergson found the works of the saints and mystics of the church rich with complexity and energy. In his famous Two Sources of Morality and Religion, he said, “Let us leave aside for the moment, their Christianity, and study in them the form apart from the matter. [From their mystic states] they were then swept back into a vast current of life; from their increased vitality there radiated an extraordinary energy. . . .” And then, “Just think of what was accomplished in the field of action by a St. Paul, a St. Teresa, a St. Catherine of Siena, a St. Francis, a Joan of Arc, and how many others besides!” Their simplicity was discovered in focus, ordering, purposefulness, energized by a transcending vision of reality. For the human being to seek the simplicity that belongs to God is, as perhaps Thoreau’s often sad and disordered life demonstrates, disastrous. “With us,” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “composite things are better than simple things, because the perfection of created goodness is not found in one simple thing, but in many things,” just as “the perfection of divine goodness is found in one simple thing. . . .” (Summa Theologica, I, iii, 7).
Bonhoeffer, turning this insight toward the human situation, saw that simplicity lies not in suppression of the will, but in the intensification of the human desire for that good which lies in God alone. “Man cannot live simultaneously . . . in simplicity and in discordancy.” Simplicity comes in unity of purpose, or (in other words) in sincerity. He recalls how Jesus taught his disciples to give, not allowing the right hand to know what the left is doing. It is a teaching against disunity, disorder, insincerity of purpose.
The deep impression which this saying of Jesus made upon His disciples is clearly shown by the fact that wherever in the apostolic exhortation there is reference to giving, we always find added the requirement that it shall be done “with simplicity” (Rom. 12:8; 2 Cor. 8:2, 9:11, 9:13, etc.). (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995], pp. 38–39)
In the Christian tradition, from Augustine to Aquinas to Bonhoeffer, we find a consistent emphasis upon simplicity of ordered purposefulness: immanent order made possible by transcendent purpose. But Thoreau, lacking the transcendent vision, largely failed to achieve one of the purposes for which he adopted his more earthbound simplicity: a successful publishing career. For although one of the reasons he wanted to spend as little time as possible making a living was so that he could devote himself to writing, at the end of his life he had produced only two books—one of which cost him more to publish than he ever regained—and a number of his poems, essays, and reviews, as well as copious journal entries, were compiled and published in book form only after his death.
His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented in his funeral oration for Thoreau that he had largely wasted his energies, being distracted by daily life, and that while he had the gifts of a leader and might have attained national stature, instead he settled for being “captain of a huckleberry party.” But Thoreau is also instructive in his wrongheadedness. For in Walden, he presents us with the difficulty, if not the futility, of finding simplicity when we fail to lift our gaze above the manifold things of life, no matter how primitive, how untouched by civilization, how isolated from the complex human community. •
A. J. Conyers (d. 2004) was Professor of Theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, and the author of several books, including The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Spence, 2001).