I wonder if going to the woods, Thoreau-style, is still possible? It is sadly troubling that my first response to this not-so-rhetorical question is: Ted Kaczynski. “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” So begins the so-called Unabomber Manifesto, or, as Kaczynski titled it, Industrial Society and its Future. The influence upon Kaczynski by the Transcendentalist from Walden is well documented. Kaczynski even modeled his Montana cabin after Thoreau’s. But of course one of the men was a paranoid schizophrenic.
I spent a good portion of my youth living out of a backpack and have reflected often on the simplicity of carrying everything I need on my back. The Buddhist monk carries only his alms bowl. In the first instance, the backpacker, a robust first-person individualism is necessary. It is a quintessentially American idea, this notion of self-sustaining selfness, to put it awkwardly. The other image, the wandering monk, is a statement in “otherness’’–the Eastern idea of inter-connectivity, where the individual is subsumed by the whole, society trumping the individual. We are never singular. Even Thoreau returned to Concord for regular Sunday meals with the Emersons.
When one lives out of a backpack, or chooses a similar life vehicle, the motivation of a human life of aiming and aspiring is seriously negated. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” said Thoreau. This is, perhaps, at the root of my struggle to create a life of authenticity. I fear, though, that our ability to make a distinction between authenticity and the lack thereof, has been lost. Looking back over the years I know there were times when I was closer to that nascent ideal–authenticity–and there where times when I was more–most?–distant. It seems starkly obvious to me that an authentic life will be a good life. At the beginning of the Donald Barthelme story, An Indian Uprising, the narrator asks Sylvia, “‘Do you think this is a good life?’ The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. ‘No.’”
A good way of life will, I think, hold us to something we love and along with it, appeal to our sense of a superior ideal. The wisdom of Socrates was the challenge of pausing to take stock, to examine life, and thus make it more worthy. The zen notion of non-grasping applies here. The more we attempt to grasp authentic expression in life, the less capable we are of attaining that which we attempt to grasp. It is a paradox of existence. The action of examination is the edifying means and end.
The question I wrestle with, How shall I live? is only half the question the Transcendentalists considered. As Charles Comey put it in his essay, The Passion of the Cow, the more edifying question is: “How should we live given our character as beings that live in light of ideals?” It is a question of ethics, this question of our ideals.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I am man without conventional faith. The implication here, of course, is the same one Socrate’s confronted: with no ethical dictum from above, no direction from the mountain, from a supernatural source, from the cosmos, from angels, gods or God, how does on proceed? It is not an original question.
Let’s look at that famous night spent in jail by Henry David Thoreau.
It was late July, 1846 and Thoreau ran into Sam Staples, the local tax collector. He was in Concord to retrieve a shoe from a cobbler. (He had moved to Walden, two miles from town, July 4th the year before, but frequented Concord for supplies, staples, pies from mom and, as noted above, Sunday meals at Emerson’s house. His sojourn at Walden, in other words, was not the experience of a recluse, as is often thought.) Thoreau was delinquent six years of poll taxes and Staples had found his man. Thoreau refused to pay the taxes and was taken to jail. Poll taxes were used to underwrite the Mexican-American War as well as the institution of slavery–both anathema to Thoreau. He stood his ground and Civil Disobedience was born.
According to some accounts, Emerson visited Thoreau in jail that night and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” To which Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?” To Thoreau’s dismay, the tax was quietly paid by his aunt. “I was released the next day,” he wrote, “obtained my mended shoe, and returned to the woods in season to get my dinner of huckleberries on Fair-Haven Hill.” The society of Concord withheld judgement on the young man in the woods, deeming him at best odd and singularly unique. It is an overstatement to say he was at odds with society, but he was aware that he was running amuck of it, to which he commented, “I preferred that society should run ‘amok’ of me, it being the desperate party.”
Much has been made of this incident and there is no reason to rehash the commentary here. This is not a historical pursuit. I have a weakness for metaphor and analogy, and Thoreau’s night in jail is rich in that capacity. I think it worthwhile, however, to put this incident under a microscope.
The experience had an expected and strong effect on Thoreau, and like many of his experiences he studied it and whittled it into insight. In this instance, he wrote, “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government” and delivered lectures at the Concord Lyceum. Bronson Alcott was in the audience at one such lecture and recorded this in his journal for January 26th, 1848:
“Heard Thoreau’s lecture before the Lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State– an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government, and an attentive audience. His allusions to the Mexican War, to Mr. Hoar’s expulsion from Carolina, his own imprisonment in Concord Jail for refusal to pay his tax, Mr. Hoar’s payment of mine when taken to prison for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered, and reasoned. I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.”
The redeeming lesson here, for me, is the action taken in accordance with an ideal made local. Thoreau would agree, I think, that a condition of a worthy life is to live in relation to the ideal we hold. This, most importantly, is a matter of living in a present condition to action, not a future condition, nor hapless recollection to a past condition, but to be present and simultaneously manifest an action. Life should, as I mentioned above, hold us to something we love and along with it, appeal to our sense of a superior ideal.
I moved to Maine a year and half ago. I live in Portland, a city of about 65,000. It is not remote. It is not wilderness, though a vast wilderness is close, a fact I find reassuring. The city of Portland has a Buy Local campaign, that by all accounts, is hugely successful. A walk around our peninsula–the Portland peninsula is three miles long and one mile wide–will reveal little of large, corporate, chain-store America. Taking the aforementioned perambulation, one will discover a CVS, a Whole Foods and two Starbucks. There is a Walgreens going up, but that is about it. Everything else is largely local. Local cafes, independent bookstores, neighborhood pharmacies, tattoo parlors, pet supply boutiques, delis, cheese vendors, wine shops, jewelry stores, pizza makers and tea houses abound, all small local entrepreneurial endeavors.
I stopped buying my books at Amazon when I moved here. I quickly understood, in a way I did not comprehend, nor care about previously, that sending my money to Amazon–wherever that is!–took money out of the pockets of Chris and Stuart, the proprietors of Longfellow Books, my local independent bookstore. When I buy my produce and meat at the local farmer’s markets, I am investing in my community. When I eat at Walter’s, I am supporting one of our excellent local chefs. And so on. Follow the money, an old boss used to implore. When I buy organic foods, I am investing in land and water that is not going to be polluted by chemicals and fertilizers. Why would I buy apples from New Zealand at Whole Foods, when my local farms, here in Maine, provide wonderful apples? The very question seems rhetorical, but it isn’t. It is a serious question, the answer of which has far-reaching implications. One doesn’t have to spend a night in jail to make a local statement and in doing so, the foundation of an ideal is laid. What is your motivation? as my mother used to ask.
When I purchase a local broiler chicken it is, in my estimation an act of authenticity, when measured against buying a chicken raised, fed, slaughtered, then shipped from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It is not a revelation to learn that the “Slow Food” movement was born in Rome, as an effort to address and resist the opening of another McDonald’s.
The Buy Local, Keep Portland Independent, web page lists ten reasons for supporting local businesses. They are:
1.) Keep dollars in Portland’s economy
2.) Embrace what makes Portland unique
3.) Foster local job creation
4.) Help the environment
5.) Nurture community
6.) Conserve your tax dollars
7.) Have more choices
8.) Benefit from local owner’s expertise
9.) Preserve entrepreneurship
10.) Ensure Portland stands out from the crowd
The practice of these disciplines–for that is what they–generates in the practitioner a sense of confirming a commitment to an ideal. They seem actions of an authentic nature. This notion of “localism” was central to Nietzsche’s thoughts of an ideal state, based on the ancient Greek ideal. Not that he would have been a proponent of “buy locally,” but he was a proponent of creating and preserving community– a need due to the loss of a “homeric” myth common to the community. As the present biographer of Nietzsche, Julian Young, put it: “For Nietzsche, too, ‘moral community’ is precisely what religion is concerned with.” That is, a social pragmatism which informs society as the only common rational basis for morals.
It is not a silly game to take the list of ten above and make it personal. Consider:
1.) Make your efforts local first
2.) Embrace and nurture a personal uniqueness
3.) Foster creativity (in yourself and others)
4.) Help the environment
5.) Nurture community
7.) Make good choices, based on a personal ideal of the authentic
8.) Practice expertise
9.) Practice entrepreneurship (An entrepreneur is someone who possesses a new idea.)
10.) Stand out from the crowd, be unique (see above)
I am attempting to explore the question, How is life made more worthy? as well as the attendant questions: How does one examine a life? Is this a good life? How do we recognize authenticity? Practice it? And so on. This list is nothing more than an exercise to paint upon a larger canvas a notion of authenticity, based on a successful business and community model. It is a simple suggestion, bore from Thoreau’s personal influence on me. That influence might be measured as the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit or character, irrespective of the forces and pressures and influences of a material world.
Here’s a question: What if we simply accept experience as authentic? What if we were to say, I am alive, therefore I am authentic? Socrates did not say, “Examine for authenticity.”
Sometimes, like here, I fear I’ve traveled too far in one direction, the destination about which I am unsure.