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By Nancy Pettinicchio November 19, 2014

Transcendentalism: Walden and Contemporary Society

In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist philosopher of the 19th century, not only describes his two-year experiment in the woods but also discusses his philosophy of life. Through his experience of living by Walden Pond, Thoreau takes a step back from society and examines his lifestyle as well as the lifestyles of his peers. Due to the text’s striking relevancy to contemporary society, Thoreau’s discussion on nature, luxury, and consciousness has greatly impacted my perspective and, consequently, my way of life.

The appreciation of nature is the first and foremost step to truly experiencing human life. Thoreau emphasizes the beauty of nature as well as the human race’s inclusion within it. His criticism of society’s disconnect with all living things is evident, for he reminds his readers that they are “partly leaves and vegetable mould” themselves. Thanks to Thoreau’s perspective of oneness regarding humans and nature, I have altered my diet as well as my overall lifestyle in order to live more harmoniously amongst other living entities. Furthermore, Thoreau’s disdain toward Flint, a greedy farmer, is also an important example of the appreciation of nature. The naming of Flint’s Pond angers Thoreau, for the body of water is named after a man who uses it solely for money. Thoreau specifies that the pond should rather be named after an animal that inhabits it, for nature is much more worthy of offering its name to the pond. This passage is once again extremely relevant to contemporary society. Money is so often the principle motive for the destruction of the environment due to the belief that humans are distinct from nature. In order to find what it truly means to be alive, individuals must comprehend that the destruction of the environment is ultimately synonymous with the destruction of the human race. Human beings are just as rooted within nature as the trees they depend on.

In order to live in harmony with nature, individuals must consider living simply and abandoning superficial luxuries. Thoreau examines luxury extensively; he criticizes his peers’ distorted understanding of what is truly valuable in life. Money is a central theme within Walden—or more specifically, the dangers of money. In Thoreau’s discussion on shelter, he depicts overpriced homes as one of the greatest evils of his time. He has great reason to be critical of modern houses, however, for the burden of a mortgage threatens health and happiness. Since a large portion of the current population deems luxuries as essential, individuals are willing to commit their lives to tedious labor in exchange for money. Modern education is a pathway to finding a career that offers a paycheck rather than happiness. Thoreau’s exploration of this problem provides an outside perspective on consumer culture, resulting in the examination of what makes individuals genuinely happy. If Thoreau is correct, the elimination of superficial luxuries is crucial to happiness. Thoreau states, “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things”. What in my life is truly allowing me to be alive? What in my life is pushing me to see clearly, to be genuinely content? Certainly not my cell phone, nor my clothing. Society’s idea of reality is merely like a “fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments”. Contrary to its purpose, luxury complicates life, and humans are victims of artificial reality. The realization that luxury is a distraction results in the appreciation of natural things, and the possibilities of human life suddenly become much more exciting.

Although the importance of nature and the superficiality of luxury are key in Walden, individuals must ultimately be conscious in order to realize such truths. Thoreau defines the mass of men as asleep, claiming that most people experience everyday life without opening their eyes. The following quote is possibly the most beautiful as well as the most relevant to contemporary society: “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 millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive”. To be awake is to be alive! Morning is the time when one awakens, when one accomplishes oneness with nature, when one rejects unnecessary luxury and accepts consciousness as a living creature. Consciousness is about following personal truth and dedicating oneself to acting upon what one believes to be right. Thoreau is especially inspirational in regards to personal truth, for he not only speaks of change but also emphasizes the importance of taking action. He encourages individuals to always act upon their beliefs and to refuse to participate in things they disapprove of. With consciousness, human beings can achieve the most rewarding goals within their lives, and personal, genuine happiness and satisfaction is essential to the betterment of society.

Walden has led me to question and discuss aspects of humanity that I had never fathomed beforehand. According to Thoreau, “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour”. Inspired by Thoreau’s perspective on nature, luxury, and consciousness, I am determined to make my life worth contemplating, for I am a human being filled with the desire to be awake. I no longer wish to go through life with my eyes closed. A change within myself is ultimately a change for the world, and that is a truth I plan to live by for the rest of my existence.

Image credit: Wikipedia

About the author

Nancy is a Cinema/Video/Communications student with a passion for still and moving images. She is inspired by a variety of disciplines and wishes to explore both digital and fine arts as well as philosophy within her future projects.


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    Alex Cruz

    November 29, 2014


    First I must say that I am a little biased in my review of this article because I do know the author and she’s a sweetheart.

    This article is wonderful; not only is it a concise, well-expressed summary of the essential thoughs expressed in Thoreau’s Walden which obviously still have relevance in today’s society, but it is also in its own way an account of the author’s own personal journey, much like Thoreau’s, from being “asleep” to becoming “awake” to the realities of the modern world, its materialsm and self-indulgence, and also to the unviersal truth that we are one with nature even for our supposed mastery of it. Although the book really is a sort of manifesto of transcendentalist philosophy in the form of autobiography, this kind of review really reveals the critique that Thoreau had for his contemporaries and the call to arms that he essentially brought in his work, maybe unconciously, to start an intellectual revolution, the repurcussions of which are obviously still present today; evidently because a fresh convert wrote this article! It would do the world some good to read this book, to open their eyes, because it raises concerns that are in fact still and potentially even more relevant today than they were in Thoreau’s day, and it’s heartwarming to see someone embrace this wholeheartedly.

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    Vince Pilkington-Landreville

    November 30, 2014

    Like Alex, my commenting on Nancy’s piece is a bit biased, because I share the conviction that she is an absolutely wonderful and necessary human being. That being said, this piece is so excellently well-written and inspiring, that I couldn’t quite help myself. I find the way that you draw these valuable links between Thoreau’s Walden and our contemporary world to be insightful. You single out the most important ideas and convincingly put forth an argument for our oneness with nature. This piece particularly inspires me at this point in my life, when I am about to go out into the work force… and for what? To fill my life with empty luxury? Or to fill my life with happiness; with fulfillment? You help me realize that I am still essentially asleep, and that my awakening is something that needs to happen for me to be whole. Thank you for this article. Thank you for softly nudging me in the right direction; I’m going to go outside and hug a tree now. For real.

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    The Dude

    December 3, 2014

    I must say kudos on the title I was hooked at first glance. The rest of the article was just as well written. I really enjoyed reading what Pettinicchio had to say about the book. Although I haven’t read the book I think she did a good job explaining and summarizing. Furthermore, I think Pettinicchio did a good job finding examples to help make Thoreau’s points clear. In fact I think Pettinicchio did such a good job that I would like to read the book, in spite of not being a fan of primitivist theories.

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