Thoreau on the Purpose of Life

When I was in college, Walden was a life-changing book. I was so enthused by its beauty and intricacy that I ended up not only reading it many times over but writing a long research paper which became a presentation for the Thoreau Society.

Yet there was one line that, until recently, I couldn’t quite figure out. When reading it before, I had the feeling that, “hey there’s something here I’m not getting,” but couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

And this is the line: “For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it [life], whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.'”

The way I interpret this line now not only makes complete sense, to me, but at the same time brings out its great humour and profundity. This line actually suggests what, in Thoreau’s view, is the true purpose of life. But to arrive at that interpretation, we need to understand it in the context of Walden’s subject matter and intent, the role of the chapter in which it appears (chapter Two), and the interpretations available to Thoreau given his deep experiences of consciousness.

Walden is a book about enlightenment or self-realization. From the first sentence, the epigraph, in which Thoreau says he intends to wake his neighbors up, to the last sentence (“The sun is but a morning star”), with its subtle pun/allusion to Christ, Walden is about awakening consciousness and having a direct experience of reality. This is, after all, what Thoreau set out to do in the first place, by moving out to Walden pond: “…to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” As he says a little later, we must “work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance… till we come to a hard bottom and rock in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is.” Walden tells the story of Thoreau’s quest for reality, or the truth of life.

The whole book makes so much more sense in this light. Many things Thoreau describes are metaphors for inner phenomena experienced on the spiritual journey, just as the words he writes are merely metaphors for the actual world. The various metamorphoses that the “I” character undergoes throughout the book are metaphors for the way the ego shapeshifts in the mind. The chasing of the loon in “Brute Neighbors” is also a metaphor for his hunt of the ego, which keeps appearing on different places on the pond, and as soon as he gets to where it just was, it has then moved to some other place. The allusion to the phoenix mythos at the very end of the book represents the death of the false self and the rebirth of Thoreau’s authentic self, and our authentic self—enlightened consciousness—from the ashes.

There are many more examples, but the main point is that Walden, from beginning to end, intends to wake its readers up to reality. Then the question is: what is the reality we are waking up to? Well, Thoreau’s extensive use of metaphor and allusion, and his reluctance to ever say clearly what he means, suggests that it’s something that can’t really be put into words. It can only be hinted and cleverly pointed to, as if it were something subtle, ineffable, unable to be grasped by the mind.

The closest Thoreau comes to talking about reality is to say that it is ONE. He wrote in a letter to Horace Greeley that he was “born to be a pantheist,” that is, one who holds that everything—literally everything—is one divinity. At the beginning of the “Reading” chapter, he writes that “The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed.” In other words, We are One, and we are a divinity that is not bound by time.

The final piece of the puzzle is to understand the purpose of the second chapter in Walden, “Where I lived and What I Lived for.” The chapter title indicates that it will have to do with the purpose of life (or, at least, Thoreau’s life), and its placement after the first chapter, “Economy,” which had to do primarily with life at the material and physical level, suggests that this chapter will be about the spiritual or metaphysical level of life. Once we have attended to our physical needs and sustenance, we can turn to higher matters.

About halfway through this chapter, Thoreau tells us, in a now-famous line, why he went to live at Walden pond and what his goal was:

“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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.'”

In the first part of this paragraph, Thoreau is basically saying, ‘I went to the woods to find out what is real.’ At the end of the paragraph, he appears to be criticizing the Church’s idea of the purpose of life, the “chief end of man.” But on another level, he’s surreptitiously giving his own view of the purpose of life, which ties the paragraph together. He does find what is real, and that discovery informs, of course, his view on the meaning and purpose of life.

If you can imagine Thoreau’s experience of life, he experiences the present moment and everything in it as the manifestation of divinity or God. It is a state of oneness, of great beauty, and, as Alan Hodder brings to light in his book (Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness), a state of ecstasy. Everything is this amazing God appearing in tens of thousands of different forms, right now. As Thoreau says, “God himself culminates in the present moment.” And the direct experience of this God, he hints throughout Walden, is freedom.

So “God” is a word Thoreau enjoys using for the one reality, the divinity underlying all appearances. “Glorify God and enjoy him forever,” then, is an expression of the purpose of life, set apart in quotation marks for us. After all, what is there left to do after realizing God? Your life is going to be enjoyable because you know that what you are is essentially One with all that is, and the only thing that makes sense is to “glorify”–granted that “glorifying God” can take a number of different forms: admiring Nature, fighting injustice, writing Walden, etc.

The funny part is that Thoreau is actually borrowing the phrase (“glorify God and enjoy him forever”) from the Church and clergy, whose lives couldn’t look more different from his own. This is where the italics on “somewhat hastily” come into play. It’s as if Thoreau is saying, “you and I reached the same conclusion, but you reached for a definition of God a little too quickly!” The clergy took their definition of “God” from tradition, and imagines God removed from life, for the most part. Thoreau reaches his definition through his own experience, and he finds a God that is absolutely present and, indeed, reflected in the pond water.

. . . As we dive into the text of Walden, we are at the same time being invited to dive into the “waters,” the fluid reality, of life. Thoreau suggests that if you could just see one fact clearly, then you would “happily conclude your mortal career.” To see life clearly, we must give up our prejudices and be fully in the present moment. Walden is simply here to remind us, “It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”


2 thoughts on “Thoreau on the Purpose of Life

  1. PeterJ

    Thanks Grant. What a wonderful essay. I can hardly believe I’ve not read any Thoreau and will rectify this asap thanks to you. Oddly, I read this essay ten minutes after reading in the book ‘A Course in Miracles’,that God is to be found in the ‘Holy instant’, where distinctions dissolve and all is One. Same old perennial message about the same old perennial Now, Funny how everybody who searches finds the same thing.

    I plan to read your other writings here.

    Liked by 1 person

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