Here is one of Thoreau’s explanations for why he went to the woods:
“It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them.”
From here he goes into a long discussion of food, shelter, and clothing. At times he sounds like he’s going off the deep end into an extreme asceticism. For example, he writes that “the New Hollander goes naked with impunity, while the European shivers in his clothes. Is it impossible to combine the hardiness of these savages with the intellectualness of the civilized man?”
Not that he went quite that far. “At the present day, and in this country, as I find by my own experience, a few implements, a knife, an axe, a spade, a wheelbarrow, etc., and for the studious, lamplight, stationery, and access to a few books, rank next to necessaries, and can all be obtained at a trifling cost.”
Why would anyone do this? Remember Henry’s earlier comments about work and worry. The point here isn’t to suffer, but to reduce your wants to the point that you don’t have to work all the time to keep yourself comfortable. He wanted to leave himself plenty of time to walk in the woods, chat with strangers, read books, think, and generally enjoy himself. His fellow townsmen would consider it a master plan for maximum laziness.
There was a little more to it than that, of course:
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.”
Here he sounds like an ascetic, sort of a secular monastic. He saw luxury as a distraction from the higher thoughts and experiences of life. But there was also what you might even call a political aspect to it:
“None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.”
And here we see Henry as the outsider, the radical, the man who doesn’t want to get tied to society and its luxuries so that he loses the ability to stand apart from it and critique it as a disinterested observer.
Radical, ascetic, or lazy bum. You could look at Henry-in-the-woods in a lot of different ways. Mostly, though, I think he thought of himself as an experimenter. He wanted to test life and learn to separate the worthwhile from the things that were merely distractions.
Here’s something to think about: Today we have far more luxuries, more conveniences, more stuff than was available even to the wealthiest people of Thoreau’s day. (What would Henry have said about the Internet?) Does this mean we’re even more spiritually impoverished than Concord townspeople of the mid-nineteenth century? Does technology and wealth drag us further and further from Thoreau’s ideal with each passing generation? Or have we been treading water, or even gaining in wisdom contrary to what Henry might have predicted?
(About “A Year in Walden”)