The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

Life lessons for W&L students from Henry David Thoreau

Using quotes from the ‘Walden’ writer to reflect on our own lives

A lot of people don’t like Henry David Thoreau. People I’ve talked to have found the 19th-century writer to be annoying, hyper-masculine, hypocritical and unrealistic. He painted himself as a rugged individualist, they say, faring all by himself in his little Walden hut.

The reality, they say, is that his mother did his laundry and he lived a mere mile from Concord. They find his style unnecessarily difficult and sanctimonious. These people aren’t alone. Bill Bryson, author of A Walk in the Woods and A Short History of Nearly Everything, once called Thoreau “inestimably priggish and tiresome.” Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Kathryn Schultz lambasted Thoreau in a 2015 piece for The New Yorker, declaring “Thoreau was, in the fullest sense, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Tough audience for ole Henry.

I, for one, like Thoreau. In fact, he’s one of my favorite authors. I don’t think he painted himself as an individualist who didn’t need or care about anyone else, while hypocritically going into town for food and his mama. He just liked people. Laura Dassow Walls’ extensive biography of Thoreau notes how loyal of a friend and family member he was. In “Walden,” he had an enttire chapter titled “Visitors.” His prose is difficult and, as Bryson says, often tiresome, but that shouldn’t discredit the guy. The best authors are ones you have to spend some time understanding.

But the goal of this article is not to just defend Thoreau. That’s been done by many others, and a lot of you probably don’t care about Thoreau enough one way or the other. And so instead, I wish to present some good Thoreau quotes and explain them as I see relevant for us; as Washington and Lee students, as young people, and as Gen-Zers.

“No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.”

Thoreau was pretty skeptical of the division of labor. Labor, such as building a house or hoeing a field (things he did during his time at Walden), had value in and of itself, he thought. To have someone else to do it for you was to lose out on the beauty of the craft, of knowing the beans and weeds and earth you are hoeing, or of the trees you are cutting and felling.

I think of this one today in relation to AI. No doubt I could use AI to figure something out or write that paper for me, but that is to lose out on the process of writing a paper or learning things yourself, a process that is what education is fundamentally about. However convenient and efficient AI might be, however much time it may save you, if it comes to the exclusion of you thinking for yourself then it’s not doing you any good.

“…it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.”

This one seems especially true at Washington and Lee, where the “common mode of living” is living as part of the wealthy upper class with a job as a consultant, banker, lawyer or doctor. When people tell me they want to do investment banking or consulting I always make a point of asking why. Very rarely have I heard an answer to that question that reveals they are choosing that mode of life because they prefer it.

Instead, the mood is that of resignation.

“My dad wants me to do it; it’s a good career; it makes a lot of money,” they say. Forget any notion of vocation. Part of Thoreau’s goal at Walden was to figure out the “facts of life,” what we actually need to live and be happy, and what parts are superfluous.

Thoreau’s point is that this is what we should all be doing, that an untested life is a failed life, and that to test our lives looks different for all of us (he didn’t want everyone to go live in the woods, as some Thoreau critics assert). If you are choosing a career because you don’t think there is a better choice for your mode of living (ie choosing to be an investment banker because you can’t imagine a mode of life that doesn’t necessitate making exorbitant sums of money), then you should be putting that to the test somehow. And if after that you find you can’t possibly live without having a million-dollar home, expensive clothing and a fancy car, then so be it (although I’ll have to say that any real test wouldn’t reveal that to be the case).

“It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time… not till we are lost, in other words until we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves.”

I don’t think we get lost enough anymore. Phone GPS means as long as we have service we know where we are, and we practically have service everywhere. Even if you are in the woods, hiking trails are so well-marked and blazed that getting lost is a difficulty. Of course, being lost is a risk; it is disorienting, dangerous (especially in the woods), and discomforting. But it’s also important. We find things about ourselves when we are lost, we go down roads we wouldn’t normally, or discover where we started to go isn’t what we want anymore. When the world becomes strange and when we are thrust into the unfamiliar are the moments when we grow the most and figure ourselves out.

“Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who lose no moment of the passing life remembering the past.”

It’s hard today. Our attention is perpetually under attack — by the Instagram reels and TikTok pages, by the advertisements on the TV and billboards, and by the text messages and emails on our laptops in class. Our attention is a commodity, and it takes remarkably conscious work to keep it under our control. Living fully in the present means giving your attention to the world — to the birds singing in the trees, to the kids playing in the neighborhood, to the people at this school and place, and appreciating and loving it. Attending to the present in this way opens the world up in new and profound ways. In short, Thoreau is often curmudgeonly, harsh and opinionated to a fault. You can’t help but read him and feel under attack. But you also can’t help but feel that he is right about so much — in the late 19th century and now. He wanted to figure out what this thing we call life really was, and it is a project we all ought to undergo in one form or another.

“I went to the woods deliberately,” he writes. “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.

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