Thoreau’s castles in the air (Walden 201)

I’m going to quote a well-quoted paragraph in which Thoreau sums up much of the content of Walden. Taken by itself — if you’re coming to this page without having read the rest of the book… well, read the paragraph and then I’ll tell you what I have in mind:

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

If you’re reading this quote without context, it starts off sounding like motivational speaker claptrap (at least up to the point where he starts talking about simplifying your life.) Chase your dreams. Follow your heart. Success will be yours. See you at the top!

But if you’ve read this far into the book, you know what kind of dreams and what kind of success he is talking about. And for that kind of success at least, he is indeed a motivational speaker. Throughout this book he’s shown us one way of doing this, a way that was suited to his particular circumstances and temperament. Now he’s done his work. The rest is up to us.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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