"The Mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation."
The path we walk through life is not through an untrod wilderness. It is not free from past influence nor is it free from the influence of our own footsteps. But we are often so focussed on our path that we forget that a path is a made thing and not something which arises from outside humankind. Despite this we often know the frustration of being forced upon our path, whether by individuals or society as a whole. There is a way free from this path, however deep the rut has been furrowed. In Walden Thoreau lays out how we are able to step from the path and lose ourselves and why we should. As he says, “But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear.” We need only nurture those natures and we can see beyond the path and thereby free ourselves to trod new ground.
When younger I lived near an empty lot that was between the street upon which was my house and major thoroughfare, there was, when I first moved there, a small path through the lot, by the time I moved away this small path had been widened significantly by the action of myself and others. I recently met a man who lives on the street and the path is still there, and still wide and well tread. Like this, those who walk the path of society are both following the path and reinforcing the path. People are both a product of the machine and a part of the machine. They know somewhere that this path is somehow wrong. They know what they are expected to cultivate in society, but this clashes with what they must cultivate as an individual, the germs of virtue. It is the clash of these two things which gives rise to the desperation of which Thoreau speaks. We are desperate to allow our virtue to grow and yet the only path we are aware of is that of society. For Thoreau Walden represents the experience which is necessary for each of us to first see the path of society and second that allows us to find a path that lets the seeds of virtue grow. Walden is the experience of being lost, because if we are to see the path of virtue we must first lose the path of society, for like the journey home, our bodies, even without their masters, will follow the path to where it leads.
The bulk of Thoreau’s theory in Walden seems heavily informed by classical Chinese thought. Beyond referencing Confucius, he quotes both Confucius and Mencius. His use of the path as a metaphor is particularly indicative of Chinese philosophical influence. Tao, generally translated as “The Way” but alternatively as “path,” is very important in Classical Chinese thought, not just in Taoism, but also in the writings of Confucius and Mencius. The way is the path which the sage is to follow and is the basis for virtue. Thoreau takes this conception and while accepting the idea in general that society is guided as if on a path, he adds that it is individuals following the path that have created and reinforced the path and not of heavenly origin. He also veers from the classics in that he does not think that the path is here that we can follow to virtue. We must instead look to nature, and it will reveal the failings of our current path, society, and the path to virtue.
You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of the common man are like the grass; the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends."
This, quoted by Thoreau from Confucius’s Analects, seems to be a case where Thoreau accepts a base idea of Confucius, that laws are but one part of what makes society. The other part is what Confucius describes as the wind bending the grass, that is, those who are put up as superior have a great effect on the actions and thought of others. But he is against the Confucian path for society. In Civil Disobedience he goes so far as to directly deny Confucius:
'“If a state is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are the subject of shame; if a state is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are the subjects of shame.” No: until I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to me in some distant Southern port, where my liberty is endangered, or until I am bent solely on building up and estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my property and my life.'
Thoreau does not see poverty as something which should be the subject of shame, in fact he holds it up as noble and the poor as models for right behavior. He sees poverty as closer to the natural way. He cleaves closer to Mencius in his view of human nature.
“A return to goodness each produced each day in the tranquil and beneficent breath of the morning, causes that in respect to the love of virtue and the hatred of vice, one approaches a little the primitive nature of man, as the sprouts of the forest which has been felled. In like manner the evils which one does in the interval of a day prevents the germs of virtues which began to spring up again from developing themselves and destroys them.
After the germs of virtue have thus been perverted many times from developing themselves, then the beneficent breath of evening does not suffice to preserve them. As soon as the breath of evening does not suffice longer to preserve them, then the nature of man does not differ much from that of the brute. Men seeing the nature of this man like that of the brute, think that he has never possessed the innate faculty of reason. Are those the true and natural sentiments of man.”
Man appears as a brute because his evil deeds have crushed the germs of virtue. Society is the pathway that man has created by constant treading upon the the germs of virtue, and because there is a path man follows that path, reinforces that path and thus cultivates a brutish persona. The outward signs of this path are the luxuries against which Thoreau argues. These luxuries act as guideposts along the wrong path. To become virtuous one must avoid the wrong path, that of society, and cultivate the germs of virtue, or rather, allowing the germs of virtue to be cultivated. In The Village Thoreau talks of wondering through the darkest nights trying to find his way home, or more to the point, not of trying to find his way but of not trying and simply allowing his body to find the route home, which it can do “as the hand finds its way to the mouth without assistance.” Thoreau reinforces his view of our natural ability to be know the right thing with this quote from Mencius. “I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.” The path of society blinds us to the wisdom and truth in the world, but it is possible to find that wisdom and truth.
To see the path of society one must first remove oneself from society. Through nature and our interaction with it can we see society for what it is. Nature does not hew to our expectations, and so we are shown not what society wants us to see or what we want to see but simply what nature reveals. This interaction with nature is exemplified by Thoreau’s experience with the red squirrels at the approach of spring. The squirrels got under his house and “kept up the the queerest chuckling and chirruping,” while Thoreau was reading or writing. Try as he might he could not scare off the squirrels, they were not afraid nor would they leave despite his stomping. In this we find a path of action outside of society. We should be like the squirrels in some respect, we should follow our nature. As the squirrels nature is to play and make noise, regardless of the entreaties and arguments of society or individual person.
To bring this discussion to a more personal level, I just recently had the experience of driving some sixteen hours, from Santa Fe to Oakland. A more apropos illustration of Thoreau’s metaphor of society as a path could not have been found if I went looking. There I was, stuck in a car driving upon a path of asphalt. I had only the choice of which path would serve best to get me to my destination, and not the chance to blaze a new path. Moreover, I was on this literal path because of my metaphoric path. I had to get home so as to write this very paper in time, else I would do poorly in a class I require for my degree. But the drive itself illustrated further the problem of following a path, especially in the contemporary world. While driving I had no time to look at the world, no time to watch the sunset, to see the beautiful hill as I drove by at eighty miles per hour. Moreover, I was in this car, stuck interacting with the world not as a person but as a machine person, hybridized with the auto, my actions and reactions funneled through the machine. A sort of cyborg, not permanently fused to the machine, but dependent upon it. Like this my path in life is hybridized. I attend this university because I wish to learn, just as I drove because I wanted to get home. But it is what flies by along the side of this path that worries me. I have knowledge funneled through the academic format with which I interact. My responses to that knowledge, writings, opinions, etc., is also funneled through the academic path. I respond in writing, such as this essay, or in discussion in class. I often find that I lack the ability to explain the concepts and idea I learn, or think I have learned, to those outside of academia. It is the equivalent of giving walking or cycling directions in San Francisco when you have only driven a car. There are so many one-way streets and ways closed to a driver, routes so designed because it is more efficient if one assumes that driving is the norm, that one giving directions for a car is required to give longer and more circuitous directions that would eve be necessary for more simple forms of transport. Likewise, the vocabulary of academia is so laden with history that I can hardly use a word without it having be used for some thought hundreds of years that is often different and sometime opposite what I intuitively would use it to mean. To explain concepts one must first explain the layout of the language to be used, what cannot be used, what can be used the seemingly wrong way, and what is still open; the last of these of course being the simplest and shortest of the explanations, like telling a person driving in San Francisco that they should assume that they will not be able to turn left.
What worries me most about all this is that I do not see the space in the contemporary world to remove oneself to nature as did Thoreau. Yes, it is possible to return to nature, to camp and hike and such, but it has become such a mediated experience that we hardly see nature for what it is and instead see the conception of nature which society has given us. It is as Thoreau relates in Walden, when he returns to the site of his cabin after the fact and finds that others have used his path. Likewise, we use paths through nature which society has built. We lack the wild lands that existed at the time in which Thoreau was writing. We lack a place separate from society. Perhaps I am too pessimistic in this assessment, but I have searched, I have traveled to places near and far to find something outside all these expectations; but, I always feel the burden of society upon me. I see this in a way as because of Thoreau, or more exactly as a result of society’s response to the threat of Thoreau, and it is a threat. Society has altered to become more invasive, more totalitarian, extending further into our perception of the world. It has trod so heavily upon the germs of virtue that I have my doubts that we can ever escape this path we are on.
We follow these paths, created by man, reinforced by man. They lead our perception and our actions. We must first be separate from them, be lost, before we can see and understand them. We are forced on this path, by threat of force and other more insidious methods. My desperation is that we now lack for a Walden Pond to remove us from these paths.