“One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden
I wonder if Thoreau would have remained as dismissive of older people had he lived longer than age 44. Maybe so. (And what did his older friend and onetime mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson think of this youthful bluster?)
Or how would an old Henry would react to a young person who was as dismissive of his generation as he had been of his elders? Would he get all huffy and complain about young people these days, or would he smile?
And would the smile be one of wistful nostalgia, or one of genuine camaraderie?
Maybe it would depend. If the young person was determined to take nothing for granted and to question everything and to test life for him or herself, I think Henry would recognize a kindred spirit — a fellow scientist of life who would challenge him, argue with him, call him out on his pretensions, but who in the end would sharpen him as iron sharpens iron, and as Henry himself has sharpened generations of readers. From what I know of his biography he liked to take contrary positions in conversation.
I told my wife about this and she said, “Oh. He’s that guy!” We’ve all met that guy — the contrarian who defines himself by his opposition to all that’s not himself, and who will argue with you just for the sake of arguing. I think people who knew Henry — including Emerson — often perceived him that way. But to Henry it was just part of his relentless pursuit of the truth.
Coming of age often involves the realization that your elders don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, that the human race mostly skates by on a combination of ignorance and bluster, only occasionally learning something true, and even then usually by accident. Generation after generation of young people have stepped into adulthood vowing to do better.
In many ways Walden is full of bright youthful idealism, so pure that even its author couldn’t live up to it. That, at least, is what it looks like if you read it as a manual for living. But if you read it as an account of an experiment, as a book of striving and questioning — then it becomes much more useful and practical. It isn’t about living up to anyone’s expectations — not even your own. It’s about asking questions, challenging everything, starting fresh. In this way the reader of Walden can be youthful at any stage of life.
(About “A Year in Walden”)