A Sixth Way of Looking at Walden: Deliberately Seeking Simplicity

Walter Harding suggested “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” Bill McKibben, in his introduction to the Beacon Press edition of Walden, cites two “practical questions…: How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). Reading Walden as a way of asking these questions for ourselves, McKibben suggests, is another way of looking at Walden.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” (85), Thoreau said, in the Walden chapter titled “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” What does he mean by deliberately, and why wasn’t he able to live deliberately in town? “When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other” (6). Yet how deliberate can the decision be if, as Thoreau continues, “…they honestly think there is no choice left” (6). We might add a third question to McKibben’s reading questions: What are my choices?

“Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” Thoreau proposes, “and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails” (91). He seems to be suggesting that to live deliberately means to live free from non-essential distractions, from man-made dissipations. Perhaps this is reason enough for talking about what we are reading, for reading aloud, with others: “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written” (96), for while deliberately means intentionally, purposefully, meaningfully, existentially, deliberate also means to think, to consult others, to consider one’s options. One may live as simply as one chooses, Thoreau seems to say, but it takes, apparently, deliberation.