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Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

14 MAY, 2015

The Diffusion of Useful Ignorance: Thoreau on the Hubris of Our Knowledge and the Transcendent Humility of Not-Knowing

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“My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.”

A century and a half before the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry championed the way of ignorance, long before Jacob Bronowski admonished against the dark side of certainty and scientists came to recognize “thoroughly conscious ignorance” as central to human progress, another sage of the ages made this point with enormous elegance and piercing precision.

A year before his death and seven years after Walden, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) penned his equally ennobling treatise Walking (free ebook | public library) — a magnificent manifesto for “the spirit of sauntering,” tucked into which is a larger meditation on life’s ample complexities.

In one particularly incisive passage, Thoreau considers our blind cult of concrete answers — something arguably exacerbated today, in an age when we continually mistake information for wisdom — and writes:

We have heard of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It is said that knowledge is power, and the like. Methinks there is equal need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance, what we will call Beautiful Knowledge, a knowledge useful in a higher sense: for what is most of our boasted so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance? What we call knowledge is often our positive ignorance; ignorance our negative knowledge. By long years of patient industry and reading of the newspapers … a man accumulates a myriad facts, lays them up in his memory, and then when in some spring of his life he saunters abroad into the Great Fields of thought, he, as it were, goes to grass like a horse and leaves all his harness behind in the stable.

With his penchant for evocative metaphor, Thoreau illustrates this alternative way of knowing the world:

I would say to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, sometimes, — Go to grass. You have eaten hay long enough. The spring has come with its green crop. The very cows are driven to their country pastures before the end of May; though I have heard of one unnatural farmer who kept his cow in the barn and fed her on hay all the year round. So, frequently, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge treats its cattle.

Thoreau’s chief concern is the hubris that knowledge breeds, to which conscious not-knowing offers a counterpoint of humility:

A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful — while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with — he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?

Illustration by D. B. Johnson from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

In a passage that calls to mind the singular wisdom of moss, Thoreau contemplates the self-transcendence that embracing ignorance makes possible:

My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before — a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot know in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun: “You will not perceive that, as perceiving a particular thing,” say the Chaldean Oracles.

Complement the wholly wonderful Walking with Thoreau on optimism, the deepest measure of “success”, the greatest gift of growing old, what it really means to be awake, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit this charming children’s book about his philosophy.

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23 APRIL, 2015

Thoreau on Libraries and His Ideal Sanctuary for Books

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“Those old books suggested a certain fertility … as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.”

“We have an obligation to support libraries,” Neil Gaiman asserted in contemplating our responsibilities to the written word, adding: “If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

More than a century and a half earlier, another great man of letters extolled the value of libraries with equal wholeheartedness. From The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that timeless trove of wisdom on such matters as the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success — comes a beautiful recollection 35-year-old Thoreau penned before sunrise on March 16, 1852:

Spent the day in Cambridge Library.

The Library a wilderness of books. The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’s Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.

The New York Public Library reading room by Robert Dawson from his photographic love letter to public libraries. Click image for more.

And yet despite his reverence for these traditional bastions of literature, Thoreau sees something insufficiently alive in the physicality of the library. In another entry, having just returned from a quest to find works by fellow naturalists and poets at the Boston and Cambridge libraries, he marvels at the curious disconnect of the proposition and imagines a wholly different home for these books — a place more akin to a sanctuary, imbued with the aliveness the books themselves:

How happens it that I find not in the country, in the fields and woods, the works even of like-minded naturalists and poets. Those who have expressed the purest and deepest love of nature have not recorded it on the bark of the trees with the lichens; they have left no memento of it there; but if I would read their books I must go to the city, — so strange and repulsive both to them and to me, — and deal with men and institutions with whom I have no sympathy. When I have just been there on this errand, it seems too great a price to pay for access even to the works of Homer, or Chaucer, or Linnæus. I have sometimes imagined a library, i.e. a collection of the works of true poets, philosophers, naturalists, etc., deposited not in a brick or marble edifice in a crowded and dusty city, guarded by cold-blooded and methodical officials and preyed on by bookworms, in which you own no share, and are not likely to, but rather far away in the depths of a primitive forest, like the ruins of Central America, where you can trace a series of crumbling alcoves, the older books protecting the most modern from the elements, partially buried by the luxuriance of nature, which the heroic student could reach only after adventures in the wilderness amid wild beasts and wild men. That, to my imagination, seems a fitter place for these interesting relics, which owe no small part of their interest to their antiquity, and whose occasion is nature, than the well-preserved edifice, with its well-preserved officials on the side of a city’s square. More terrible than lions and tigers these Cerberuses.

Illustration by D. B. Johnson from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau remains a secular bible for every thinking, feeling human being. Complement it with Thoreau on the the spiritual rewards of walking and what it really means to be awake.

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20 MARCH, 2015

Thoreau on What It Really Means to Be Awake

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“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

“The secret of success is… to be fully awake to everything about you,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote in his beautiful 1926 letter of advice to his teenage son. But how does one become fully awake to the world, especially in our world, through which we increasingly sleepwalk on autopilot, in a trance of productivity? (How awake are we, really, when we’ve stopped bowling over in awe at the everyday miracle of clouds? Or the unexpected glory of wildflowers on the city sidewalk?) Wakefulness — that embodied attentiveness to life as it lives itself through us — seems as mysterious as our nocturnal escape into dreams, and often more elusive.

That’s what Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explores in a beautiful passage from Where I Lived, and What I Lived For (public library) — another timeless treasure from the same Penguin Great Ideas series that gave us Seneca’s indispensable The Shortness of Life.

Thoreau — a man of great and enduring wisdom on subjects like the spiritual rewards of walking, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the best definition of success — extols the gift of the awake imagination:

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the wakening hour. Then there is at least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance fills the air — to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit and prove itself to be good, no less than the light.

In a sentiment he’d come to revisit some decades later in his journal, where he contemplated the myth of productivity and the true meaning of labor, Thoreau adds:

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For is a spectacular read in its totality, as is Thoreau’s larger treatiseWalden and Civil Disobedience, from which it is distilled. Complement it with Mary Oliver on how to be fully alive.

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10 FEBRUARY, 2015

Thoreau on Hard Work, the Myth of Productivity, and the True Measure of Meaningful Labor

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“Those who work much do not work hard.”

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) is the closest thing I have to a bible — I read it frequently and devotedly, always with great gratitude for the enduring wisdom that brings me closer to what I know to be true but so often forget. Indeed, Thoreau is among those rare luminaries whose ideas live on as resolutions of the most existential kind — be it his reflections on the creative benefits of keeping a diary or the spiritual rewards of walking or the only worthwhile definition of success.

Recently, while listening to a conversation with the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer — a Thoreau for our time — I was reminded once more of a particularly insightful passage from the journal as Palmer lamented that “the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we’re going to take on.”

More than a century and a half before our modern malady of confusing productivity with purposefulness and the urgent with the important, Thoreau wrote in an entry from the last day of March in 1842:

The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.

In another entry from the fall of 1851, Thoreau touches on this again in reflecting on a neighbor he finds to be “the most poetical farmer,” one who embodies “the poetry of the farmer’s life”:

He does nothing with haste and drudgery, but as if he loved it. He makes the most of his labor, and takes infinite satisfaction in every part of it. He is not looking forward to the sale of his crops or any pecuniary profit, but he is paid by the constant satisfaction which his labor yields him.

Illustration from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

This philosophy of quality over quantity, of present labor over productive work, is also manifested on a meta level in the journal itself — Thoreau’s entries are usually short, always acutely insightful, and never belabored with vain excesses. He writes one December day:

I find that whatever hindrances may occur I write just about the same amount of truth in my Journal; for the record is more concentrated, and usually it is some very real and earnest life, after all, that interrupts. All flourishes are omitted.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau is indeed an infinitely rewarding read. Complement it with Thoreau on the spirit of sauntering, the greatest gift of growing old and a charming children’s book about his philosophy.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.