Henry David Thoreau

Unfortunately I’ve lost my notes for the last two chapters of Walden. I’m putting this incomplete summary up for now, hopefully I’ll be able to dig out the rest.

Chapter Summaries

1. Economy

A person’s unhappiness and discontent is a result of societal obligations to own possesions, and having to work to afford them. One should instead live more simply and focus on improving oneself rather than one’s surroundings, as Thoreau attempts to demonstrate. There is a lot of unfortunate racial stuff in here.

2. Where I Lived, And What I Lived For

Thoreau begins with a description of his time at Walden Pond in late summer, how his house was built and how pleasant he found the place. Modern society is build on meaningless “progress” (e.g. the emptiness of the daily news), and often at the expense of many people (e.g. the railroad). Rather than rushing about from place to place on business, one might live mindfully and with clear purpose, allowing the world to go on as it does.

3. Reading

Reading fits well into this philosophy, being a slow, considered form of self-development and entertainment. Thoreau maents how people 'waste’ time on “easy reading”, contenting themselves with mass entertainment rather than grappling with the enduring classics. He argues for collective adult education and a system of focused self-betterment, what he calls the “ un-common school”.

4. Sounds

The book returns to summer, in particular the sounds of nature — birds and animals — contrasted with the insistence of the railroad. In particular Thoreau valorises the cockerel with its punctual, open nature. Meditation, meaning time spent observing the work as it is without working the body or mind, is both pleasant and worthwhile in itself.

5. Solitude

On loneliness: people ask, isn’t it depressing to spend so much time alone? Thoreau disagrees, arguing that one cannot feel lonely if one is in some way occupied — including meditation. Indeed, he points out that we’re often most alone when in a crowded city or engaged in boring chit-chat: living among people is no guarantee of good company.

6. Visitors

By virtue of being difficult to visit, the author finds he has fewer but more interesting houseguests. He describes a woodcutter who lives nearby, not intellectual but independent and a free thinker who seems content in his life. Certainly this seems far more virtuous than the hurried businessmen who visit only to criticise his different lifestyle.

7. The Bean Field

Passers-by comment on the poverty of the author’s field, but he sees it as a half-cultivated link between the counted fields of humanity and the unaccounted bounties of nature. He considers it a moral good to be able to tend to the land and feed oneself, and seems to enjoy it. But he laments the obsession with growth that drives farmers to grow crops only to sell them for profit.

8. The Village

Thoreau speaks about making his way through the forest at night: we navigate our lives by rote, and are forced to learn when we are lost. He then relates the story of being detained for not paying taxes, and how the state attempted to force its laws and rules upon him. Perhaps if people took only what they needed, and didn’t ruthlessly take while others were in need, crimes of property would cease to be committed.

9. The Ponds

The author describes the natural beauty of Walden and its surrounding ponds. He lambasts the money-grubbing farmer for whom Flint’s Pond is named, for failing to see nature’s value except as something to be exploited for profit. Similarly the destruction of the forest around Walden to make way for the railroad:

Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth.

10. Baker Farm

This isn’t the most comfortable read. Thoreau makes some good points about how consumption creates the need for work, and one can enjoy life more by learning to live with less. But his discourse comes off as preaching and presumptive, shot through with an anti-Irish strain.

11. Higher Laws

The author begins with a treatise on vegetarianism as both more humane, and practically less hassle if you’re dressing game. Sobriety, too, is considered moral — though this is to do with maintaining clarity of thought. A recurring theme is his elevation of Truth and Clarity: these come from clarity, and denial of one’s “baser” pleasures.