Monthly Archives: May 2014

The odor of goodness tainted (Walden 42)

“There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.  It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his good done to me — some of its virus mingled with my blood.  No — in this case I would rather suffer evil the natural way.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I remember a time many years ago when someone at church had the idea to send the young people out to go Christmas caroling. Specifically, we were sent to the homes of certain low income people who had been helped financially by the church. I don’t remember how we knew this, but I do remember that everyone understood it, including the people who are being serenaded. I  wondered if I was the only one who recognized the weak smiles and awkward looks of shame, because they knew that we knew they were poor, and that we felt sorry for them, and that we were happy to do them good.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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Do good or be good? Thoreau’s individualism (Walden 41)

“What good I do, in the common sense of that word, must be aside from my main path, and for the most part wholly unintended. Men say, practically, Begin where you are and such as you are, without aiming mainly to become of more worth, and with kindness aforethought go about doing good. If I were to preach at all in this strain, I should say rather, Set about being good.”

— Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

This continues Henry’s thoughts from last time about what you might call his selfishness and his lack of charitable works. Today’s quote is equally provocative.

Is it better to start doing good things and not worry about whether or not you’re becoming a better person, or is Henry correct that this is backwards? He thinks you start with yourself, figure out who you are, work on becoming a better person and find what you’re passionate about doing. Then, whatever actual good flows from that will do so inadvertently, without you even trying to accomplish anything on behalf of others. But if you get it backwards and simply try to do good without knowing yourself, you risk becoming one of the misguided do-gooders that so irritated Thoreau.

That’s how I interpret him, anyway. Continue reading

Thoreau was not a do-gooder (Walden 40)

“Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good which society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation; and I believe that a like but infinitely greater steadfastness elsewhere is all that now preserves it. But I would not stand between any man and his genius; and to him who does this work, which I decline, with his whole heart and soul and life, I would say, Persevere, even if the world call it doing evil, as it is most likely they will.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

I’m guessing that it puzzled many people that such an earnest and moralistic person was not more interested in charitable works. They may have thought, maybe he’s not righteous and idealistic after all… maybe he’s just a selfish, misanthropic bastard. Continue reading

Doing what you love… and the “curse of trade” (Walden 39)

“When formerly I was looking about to see what I could do for a living… I thought often and seriously of picking huckleberries; that surely I could do, and its small profits might suffice — for my greatest skill has been to want but little — so little capital it required, so little distraction from my wonted moods, I foolishly thought.  …I also dreamed that I might gather the wild herbs, or carry evergreens to such villagers as loved to be reminded of the woods, even to the city, by hay-cart loads.  But I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

Some people tell you to find a way to do what you love for a living. That’s what Henry was trying to do. He loved writing, but hadn’t made any money at it. But he also loved nature. He loved wandering around in the woods — why not find a way to make some money doing that? Continue reading

“My greatest skill has been to want but little” (Walden 38)

Thoreau chose his words carefully. Notice that he says “skill” and not “characteristic” or “trait.” A skill can be learned. Today we are taught the opposite skill — that of always wanting more.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

How to get by working only six weeks a year (Walden 37)

“For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

He made it on six weeks of work a year, in an 1840s economy in which an hour’s labor didn’t buy much. On the other hand, an 1840s worker didn’t expect as much, and Thoreau’s expectations of material comforts were set low even by those standards. It helped that he had no family to support, and no health insurance premiums (or taxes to support health care) — after all, medicine was still mostly quackery anyway. You were probably better off without a doctor.

What would you do if you didn’t work, but had just enough money to get by? What would be your priorities?

“The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.”

That’s not how most people would use the time, but I can think of two things to note about it:

1) By “study,” Henry isn’t just talking about books. His whole world, woods and village, was his textbook.

2) I don’t think Henry was ever bored. That’s why he didn’t have time to work much — everything around him was so interesting that he had to give it his full attention. Listening to him talk, his neighbors must have thought he was living in another world. Which in many ways he was. He transformed his world simply by looking at it deeply and being fully present in it.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

“Trumpery” — Thoreau talks about stuff (Walden 36)

“If you are a seer, whenever you meet a man you will see all that he owns, ay, and much that he pretends to disown, behind him, even to his kitchen furniture and all the trumpery which he saves and will not burn, and he will appear to be harnessed to it and making what headway he can… I look upon England today as an old gentleman who is travelling with a great deal of baggage, trumpery which has accumulated from long housekeeping, which he has not the courage to burn; great trunk, little trunk, bandbox, and bundle. Throw away the first three at least.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

It’s all about stuff, as comedian George Carlin reminds us in this famous routine: Continue reading