The first sentence below is probably the most quoted part of Walden. Last time I quoted it in isolation, as it usually appears, but today I want to show where Thoreau was leading with those words. Here’s it is with more context:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden
If you’ve read this far into the book you already know that Henry has concluded that life is sublime and not mean, but what is he saying with that last bit about the chief end of man?
He’s quoting from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a Protestant statement of faith from 1675, which begins:
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Just so you know, the chief end of this blog is not to debate religion and argue about it forever (because that’s how such discussions tend to go), but recently I got a modern-day reminder of what I think Henry was talking about when I was visiting a relative’s church, where a pastor led the congregation in a chorus that included the lines, “This world has nothing for me / I will follow you.”
Not all churches would affirm such a statement, of course, but I think the attitude has long been a common one, the idea that the religious believer should keep his or her eyes on the hereafter and not be distracted by the things of this world.
Henry would have none of it. He saw it as a needless rejection of life. One could argue about what specifically Thoreau believed about the supernatural, but thus far he’s been silent about matters beyond this present life, and this tells us something about the relative value he placed on those questions. As I understand him, he felt that the “divine” was always before you, hiding in plain sight. It was life itself.
In 1862, a few days before Thoreau’s death from tuberculosis, a friend said to him, in true Victorian deathbed form, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river, that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” People in that day placed great value on memorable deathbed statements, and Thoreau delivered one, though I’m sure it wasn’t what his friend had in mind:
“One world at a time,” Henry said.
(About “A Year in Walden”)