On Walden Pond: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Soon after offering his apology for the autobiographical nature of Walden, Thoreau quickly moves on to one of his major themes summed up in the famous words:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Thoreau was writing in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. You don't see much of that revolution on the idyllic banks of Walden. But you do hear it. Thoreau, in the chapter Sounds, writes about the sound of the train that would disrupt the quiet of the woods. The Fitchburg Railroad track was about 1/3 of a mile from Thoreau's cabin and Thoreau would often walk the railroad track as this was the quickest route into town. Thoreau walked the track so much during his time on Walden Pond that, he wrote, the "men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently take me for an employee..."

It's an interesting juxtaposition, physically and spiritually. Walden Pond and the Fitchburg Railroad track. Side by side.

We tend to think of Walden as a retreat into nature, an escape from the smoke and coal and urban grime. And it is. But Thoreau's meditations on the railroad and the commerce associated with it reveal Walden to be a bit more nuanced. For example, Thoreau writes in Walden that "What recommends commerce to me is it enterprise and bravery." There was something about the railroad, in its power, energy, vitality, and regularity that won a grudging respect from Thoreau. The coming of modernity wasn't all bad. At the very least it gave him a quick path into town.

But elsewhere in Walden Thoreau would treat commerce harshly. In the chapter Economy he writes:
But I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.
I think we understand the tensions Thoreau was articulating. There is something pretty amazing about the modern, technological world. Externally speaking, things look pretty good. I, for one, really enjoy my air conditioner here in West Texas (particularly given our recent heat wave). And I also like this laptop and the Internet. Etcetera. But internally, we sense a certain lassitude. Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age calls this the "malaise of modernity," a spiritual dryness the seems to infect most of life. And perhaps there has been no better description of this feeling than Thoreau's famous line: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

According to Charles Taylor we often confront this desperation in crises of meaning. In A Secular Age he writes: "Almost every action of ours has a point; we're trying to get to work, or to find a place to buy a bottle of milk after hours. But we can stop and ask why we're doing these things, and that points us beyond to the significance of these significances. The issue may arise for us in a crisis, where we feel that what has been orienting our life up to now lacks real value, weight...A crucial feature of the malaise of [modernity] is the sense that all these answers are fragile, or uncertain; that a moment may come, where we no longer feel that our chosen path is compelling, or cannot justify it to ourselves or others. There is a fragility of meaning..." And because of this void of meaning "the quotidian is emptied of deeper resonance, is dry, flat; the things which surround us are dead, ugly, empty; and the way we organize them, shape them, in order to live has not meaning, beauty, depth, sense." Here in modernity we experience "a terrible flatness in the everyday."

Why has life become flat? Paul Tillich, in an 1958 essay for The Saturday Evening Post entitled "The Lost Dimension of Religion," shares an analysis that echos the spirit of Walden:
How did the dimension of depth become lost?...The loss of the dimension of depth is caused by the relation of man to his world and to himself in our period, the period in which nature is being subjected scientifically and technically to the control of man. In this period, life in the dimension of depth is replaced by life in the horizontal dimension. The driving forces of the industrial society of which we are a part go ahead horizontally and not vertically...

One does not need to look far beyond everyone's daily experience in order to find examples to describe this predicament. Indeed our daily life in office and home, in cars and airplanes, at parties and conferences, while reading magazines and watching television, while looking at advertisements and hearing radio, are in themselves continuous examples of a life which has lost the dimension of depth...

Nothing, perhaps, is more symptomatic of the loss of the dimension of depth than the permanent discussions about the existence or nonexistence of God--a discussion in which both sides are equally wrong, because the discussion itself is wrong and possible only after the loss of the dimension of depth.

When in this way man has deprived himself of the dimension of depth and the symbols expressing it, he then becomes a part of the horizontal plane. He loses his self and becomes a thing among things. He becomes an element in the process of manipulated production and manipulated consumption....

But man has not ceased to be man. He resists this fate anxiously, desperately, courageously. He asks the question, for what?
At root, Walden is asking this question, trying to recover or restore the lost dimension of depth. And to be clear, Thoreau's answers in Walden are more romantic than religious. Still, we understand why Thoreau went out to Walden Pond. We all know, deep in our bones, what he was looking for.

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5 thoughts on “On Walden Pond: Lives of Quiet Desperation”

  1. While technology has caused a great shift in our experience, it is important to remember that the Biblical story begins in a garden and ends in a city (which also has a garden btw).

    That said, I like Tillich's analysis about depth especially as it relates to discussions about God. More and more I find my efforts to reach out are marked by telling people that there are other ways of knowing. The modern brain is simply not equipped with the tools to even properly examine its own experience.

  2. "I think that computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We've created life in our own image."  -Stephen Hawking

    "However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God."
    From 'A Brief History of Time' (1989).
    -Stephen Hawking

  3. Thanks for this. This theme certainly seems fitting for our times. 

    And yet, when I think on this, I am reminded of the opening of Ecclesiastes, and wonder if a sense of meaningless and a 'life of quiet desperation' is not actually simply part of human nature. Human beings have always felt this, it is simply that our articulation of it changes to suit the Zeitgeist...

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