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Chronicles from the writings of Henry David Thoreau - I

Chronicles from the writings of Henry David Thoreau


This month, I took a deep comprehension on to some of the stern, astute, and meaningful words of the great American writer, philosopher of 19th century, Henry David Thoreau from whom, it was believed, Mahatma Gandhi took upon the concept of Civil Disobedience and nonviolent remonstrations.


His perspective on his lifetime’s technology innovations, improvements and changing lifestyles has an incredible similarity to what Gandhi talked about in The Hind Swaraj and today’s Techno-Gandhian philosophy. As science and technology grows through the centuries and absorb most part of an individual’s life, great people like Thoreau, Gandhi had consistently presaged the human kind about its adverse implications and delivers their effort in shaping its growth. Amid all modernization, these men have a say that lasts for ever to remind people of taking their next step. It is immaterial if they made the right step! Instead, the conscience that awakens will speak of their value.


Two of his books, WALDEN and ON THE DUTY OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE dealt with various topics ranging from village economy to his social living, human-animal connections, climatic conditions to basic needs of the mankind. While WALDEN speaks voluminously speak about nature, and only nature, with some of his most reclusive interpretation on human nature with that of ordinary living, ON THE DUTY OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE was to bring his extrovert character that could put all men in action along with him. These books stand as a testimony of the lifestyle and living conditions existed in his period. Some of his observations on society, civilization, nature and human tendencies towards ghastly environment reflect the true picture of the evolution of human social culture.


This is a five part series to be published throughout this week. 

Chronicle – I:  Essential needs, work and money


Economy in those days was just all about agriculture and building houses. A house can be built in $28, which was a costly affair then in 1845. Thoreau gave the breakup of entire cost of materials required to build a comfortable house. While rail workers and the poor could afford only a wooden box or huts or wigwams, constructing a luxurious house for dwelling was seen as an economic development or cultural evolution. It also created a kind of class structure in the societies. He wrote, “Economy is a subject which admits of being treated with levity, but it cannot so be disposed of. - p.17. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper.”


The poor lingered around as lazy and dumb hoodwinks and were degraded in the growing upbeat societies, sometimes been enslaved. Their savings in the form of food, raw materials, clothing ran out of stock leading to a sort of bankruptcy and repudiation that put them back as savages standing on the brink of famine.


Rail journey was never a pleasant experience for the public; little expensive and luxurious too. Safety and convenience was not guaranteed. He amusingly wrote about the superfluous need of the rail roads: “I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart, with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way. - p.20”


As Gandhi often pointed out, education is not the ends; it is the means to achieve our goals and livelihood. Thoreau had a similar notion; learning through a neighborhood college by the method of professing and practicing everything that sells around the world.  He referred to a boy who wished to learn art and science would finally get everything but the art of life. “-- to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar. - p.26”


And, those who spent so much money on studies have no clues on getting back their investment. The knowledge accumulated stay as water in the reservoir waiting to be released for irrigating the lands to make them fertile. With a nonchalant thought, he put it as “…The consequence is that while he is reading Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say, he runs his father in debt irretrievably. - p.26”


It is the man who is inventing the complexities in the world. His eccentricities become, sometimes, a cultural or social change in a massive scale. Colleges and universities do plenty of modern improvements and inventions. But there exists an illusive idea on them as there is no positive advance. One gets distracted out of his normal life if he looks keenly into them. Thoreau strongly refuted them, “They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas; it may be, have nothing important to communicate. - p.26”


Man uses animals for his work. Right from tilling the soil to performing experiments about his physiological discoveries, animals play an important role in leading the mankind to the future.  Thoreau might not have withstood today’s inhuman research projects happening everywhere in the world.  Animal slaughters and experimentation on animals is too far a cynic, dominant exhilaration of human nature for him. He wrote, “Certainly no nation that lived simply in all respects, that is, no nation of philosophers, would commit so great a blunder as to use the labor of animals…. When men begin to do, not merely unnecessary or artistic, but luxurious and idle work, with their assistance, it is inevitable that a few do all the exchange work with the oxen, or, in other words, become the slaves of the strongest. Man thus not only works for the animal within him, but, for a symbol of this, he works for the animal without him. - p.28”


A town is branded as big or small based on the number of large buildings and monuments it hosts as a symbol of its longevity and tradition. Kings and emperors built towers and temples in their capitals to exemplify their architectural skills and manpower. Taxes and fines contributed to the building up of this economy.  But, only few of them endured the tides of time. Modern day people see them as a mere symbol of mystery and luxury.


Thoreau put these feelings with much more audacity. “How much more admirable the Bhagvat-Geeta than all the ruins of the East? Towers and temples are the luxury of princes. A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince. Genius is not a retainer to any emperor, nor is its material silver, or gold, or marble, except to a trifling extent. - p.28 “


Similar is his notion on the concept of philanthrophy, according to him, is a virtue which is overrated and appreciated by mankind in general. He added that it was those who with their selfishness kept in high regard as otherwise a charity that hides the multitude of sins.  When he thought of religious saints and prophets who propagate the message of God to heal the pain of the mankind, he believed that one’s communication with the saints would corrupt the manners and console the fears rather than confirming the hopes of man.


Epic writings stood against all times. They are invaluable and esteemed objects the mankind can cherish for centuries. Henry David Thoreau had a rational vision on most aspects of life though it appeared radical to many of his readers.

To be continued tomorrow.

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