Supposing a case: Thoreau on our physical and mental surroundings (Walden 207)

“No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well. For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infinity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out. In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is.”

I found this part confusing and had to read it several times and look up “case.” What does Thoreau mean? Does he mean a case as in a box or container, or a case as a set of circumstances or conditions? I think he means both. This looks like another instance of Thoreauvian wordplay. The circumstances which you suppose then become a box in which you confine yourself, and at that point it doesn’t matter that the box is imaginary. You’re trapped just the same. That’s what he means by being in two cases at the same time — you’re confined not only by reality itself, but also by your assumptions about reality. It reminds me of a saying I heard: “Most of life is imaginary.”

It’s best, Henry believes, to be honest about our circumstances and find joy in them:

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode…”

Of course, this all sounds good until you add children to the situation, and have to worry about their education, nutrition, and health. Henry is speaking from the perspective of a single man with no dependents. Keep that in mind.

Even from his own solitary perspective his words aren’t realistic: “If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me.”

If that’s true, Henry, why did you leave the woods?

Nevertheless, he’s using hyperbole to make a good point: your mental surroundings are at least as important as your physical ones. We tend to live most of our lives in imaginary worlds, creating much of our own misery. That being the case, can’t we also create much of our own happiness simply by how we look at the world?

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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