Thoreau’s Journey

Through a mix of pedantry, social commentary, artistic reference, and poetic prose, Thoreau transformed his experiences at Walden Pond into a 19th century, North American Tao. There are many similarities in the passages of Walden and The Tao Te Ching. Thoreau steeped himself in the vital throb of nature’s endless cycles and used observations of these rhythms to expose truths about the nature and meaning of life.

Thoreau said “A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts.”  On the surface, this seems to support Marx’s theory that Thoreau’s message was that “meaning” requires deliberate and focused consciousness, and does not demand a special place to be found. Yet Thoreau did not come to that conclusion sitting in a dusty office or riding a train. His discovery hinged on his presence in a natural environment.

This revelation was not new to the world. The Tao Te Ching says “The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to.”  Rain nourishes the grass, water nourishes life, and “better thoughts” nourish self. Thoreau recognized wisdom that applies to life by using the setting to build parallels between the implacable forces of nature and the human condition.

Other passages in Spring bear close ties to the Tao Te Ching. Thoreau says we should take advantage of every accident. The Tao says “Failure is an opportunity.”  Thoreau says “We should be blessed if we lived in the present always.” The Tao says “The Master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings.”  Thoreau suggests that we should not “spend our time atoning for the neglect of past opportunities.” The Tao Te Ching claims a Taoist master recognizes that success and failure are both illusions and therefore he “allows things to come and go.”

The significance of the similarities between Walden and the Tao Te Ching are immersed in their equal dependency on nature to illustrate truth, meaning, and wisdom.  Thoreau may have been influenced by Eastern Mysticism, romantic poets, mythology, and naturalism, but he did not unearth his understanding of the world until allowed himself to live by its ancient cadence.

Marx’s interpretations of Walden seem to dispute the importance of Thoreau’s literal journey. Marx says “He is saying that it does not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything ‘out there,’ but in consciousness.”  Yet, in his own words, Thoreau says “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…”

Although consciousness is a necessary component of interpreting natural processes into meaningful metaphors, the mechanism of truth-finding falls apart without the foundation on which it was based. Thoreau had to live “out there,” free from the press and hubbub of modern society and technology. Consciousness alone would not have supplied him with awareness of the immense vitality of nature and its connection to all things living. He could only encounter that by taking a deliberate journey, which leads us to the conclusion that the discovery of meaning, at least in Thoreau’s case, required more than an odyssey within.