Books / Misc

“Simplify, simplify!”


A little look at a lesson by Henry D. Thoreau.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

So Henry David Thoreau in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived for”, the second chapter of his Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). In this chapter, which by the way also makes for an excellent and thought-provoking read in its own right, Thoreau reflects on the key motivations for living as a hermit for some time. More importantly though, he invites us as readers to reflect on our own lives—not least by making bold, generalizing claims about them:

“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”

One may agree or disagree with Thoreau, but, thanks to his all-encompassing use of the plural (“Our life”), as well as the imperative in the last sentence, it is difficult not to feel compelled to react to this at all. (1) And isn’t he perhaps more right than most of us, most of the time, care to admit? Especially nowadays, in our “age of distraction”, wouldn’t it do us some good to sort through our lives and cut down on those things that aren’t really near or necessary to us in any way?

And this is not only a project for a hermit: Anyone can observe themselves and their behaviors, and reflect on what’s important to them and what isn’t. Instead of trying to squeeze more and more ‘tasks’ (Thoreau: “As for work, we haven’t any of consequence.”), appointments, meetings, cat videos, and ‘likes’ into our days, our devices, and our lives, perhaps we’d be better off re-considering which of all these things we can dispense with quite easily.

Nor do we have to subscribe to Thoreau’s high-flying aims of purity of experience in order to profit from his insights. I don’t want to mine a great thinker for merely pragmatic purposes, but it can’t hurt to consider his advice as practical inspiration for every day life: If we spend less time, energy, and money on superfluous things, not only might we come to live and appreciate a fuller and less hurried life, but, very certainly, we’ll find more capacities for the things that really matter. Be it just as a reminder of this, it can’t hurt to pick up Thoreau’s Walden every now and then.

(1) And I don’t mean the indignant reaction, however warranted, to Thoreau’s linguistically exclusive phrase, “an honest man”. That would be another issue altogether.

This text is a response to today’s Daily Prompt, titled “Simplify”.