Thoreau and the half-wits (Walden 104)

“Half-witted men from the almshouse and elsewhere came to see me; but I endeavored to make them exercise all the wit they had, and make their confessions to me; in such cases making wit the theme of our conversation; and so was compensated. Indeed, I found some of them to be wiser than the so-called overseers of the poor and selectmen of the town, and thought it was time that the tables were turned. With respect to wit, I learned that there was not much difference between the half and the whole.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Visitors,” Walden

Once again Thoreau is looking at the world while standing on his head, and redefining common notions to suit his purposes. He has already identified foolishness among the wise; today he’s finding wisdom among those considered foolish — some of them, anyway. One of the themes of Walden is the value of things thought worthless by mainstream society. Henry’s central complaint about society is that it does such an inaccurate job of assigning value.

What was his secret? Apparently he did nothing more than sit down with people that others had labeled half-wits, talked with them without preconceptions, and took them seriously. Some of them surprised him.

It isn’t normal to do what Henry did. It’s so much easier to make up your mind about a person based on superficial cues. It saves time. Of course, doing so means you’ll misjudge people at least some of the time, and Henry didn’t want to do that. He had arranged his life in such a way that he didn’t need to be in a hurry.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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