July 12 is National Simplicity Day, the birthday of transcendentalist, environmentalist and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau and a day upon which his memory is honored and celebrated.
Thoreau, born in 1817 was an author of books, poetry and essays. As a writer commonly known for his many works on returning to simpler times, he would probably have mixed feelings about trending on Twitter (and especially those tweets making puns of his last name, pronounced very similar to the word, “thorough”).
Nonetheless, many have taken to social media to honor a man now looked upon as ahead of his time and who was famous for his masterwork Walden, stance against slavery and fascination with nature.
Thoreau Was A Mentee of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817 to mother who rented out parts of their home to boarders and a father that worked at a pencil factory, according to Biography. The young Thoreau was a “bright student,” attended what is now Harvard University and had briefly tried to set up a school with his brother John until John became ill.
Thoreau eventually met the fellow Concord man who would become his mentor: Emerson, a philosopher, essayist and poet famous for his work “Self Reliance” and his philosophy in the realm of transcendentalism, according to Stanford. Transcendentalism is defined by History as, ” a 19th-century school of American theological and philosophical thought that combined respect for nature and self-sufficiency with elements of Unitarianism and German Romanticism.”
Emerson took Thoreau under his wing, according to Biography, letting him live as a caretaker for his home, promoting Thoreau’s writing and giving him access to the land which was the foundation of his most famous work.
What Is ‘Walden’?
“Walden” is Thoreau’s most famous work and it is named after his most famous residence. Thoreau built his home on land which Emerson owned and spent much of his time near Walden Pond, where he said he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” However, Waldon Pond inspired more than his famous work. According to Stanford:
His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was still a work in progress in 1845, when he went to live in the woods by Walden Pond for two years and two months. This “experiment” in living on the outskirts of town was an intensive time of examination for Thoreau, as he drew close to nature and contemplated the final ends of his own life, which was otherwise at risk of ending in quiet desperation.
While there, Thoreau kept a journal of his observations about the woods, which – according to a journal entry he wrote October 28, 1853 – became, “a library of nearly 900 volumes over 700 of which I wrote myself.”
Thoreau wrangled his many writings into “Walden,” which was published on August 9, 1854. It is a book that describes Thoreau’s journey of discovering the spirituality of nature. Part philosophy and part memoir, the work is a rejection of materialism and a celebration of those willing to slow down enough to become fully immersed in nature and able to be held spellbound by it.
Stanford described “Walden” as:
a work that almost defies categorization: it is a work of narrative prose which often soars to poetic heights, combining philosophical speculation with close observation of a concrete place. It is a rousing summons to the examined life and to the realization of one’s potential, while at the same time it develops what might be described as a religious vision of the human being and the universe.
“Walden” fell flat immediately after its publication, but it became especially popular after the 1930s. As the country was mired in war and the sacrifice of material things became more common, Thoreau’s call to return to simplicity resonated with many Americans.
Thoreau Wasn’t Afraid To Get Political
When he wasn’t writing about the history of apples or the peace in a walkabout nature, Thoreau was writing about politics.
He was inspired to write another one of his famous works, the essay “Civil Disobedience,” after he was arrested and jailed for refusing to pay a poll tax that he believed would be used to fund the Mexican-Ameican war and the expansion of slavery in the Southwest, neither of which he supported, according to a site on the history of Massachusetts. An unidentified woman quickly came to pay Thoreau’s tax, but Thoreau hoped to use his jailing to write about how to be passively resistant to unjust government action.
In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau says:
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.
As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and if they should not bear my petition, what should I do then? But in this case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory; but it is to treat with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appreciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better, like birth and death, which convulse the body
According to Biography, his words would later go on to inspire pacifist activism in such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
Thoreau was also an early abolitionist. In his essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” published in the Liberator Magazine, he provided a scathing review of Massachusetts compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act (which allowed slavecatchers to search for slaves living in free states and return them to slavery).
Three years ago, also, just a week after the authorities of Boston assembled to carry back a perfectly innocent man, and one whom they knew to be innocent, into slavery, the inhabitants of Concord caused the bells to be rung and the cannons to be fired, to celebrate their liberty- and the courage and love of liberty of their ancestors who fought at the bridge. As if those three millions had fought for the right to be free themselves, but to hold in slavery three million others. Nowadays, men wear a fool’s-cap, and call it a liberty-cap.
Much has been said about American slavery, but I think that we do not even yet realize what slavery is. If I were seriously to propose to Congress to make mankind into sausages, I have no doubt that most of the members would smile at my proposition, and if any believed me to be in earnest, they would think that I proposed something much worse than Congress had ever done. But if any of them will tell me that to make a man into a sausage would be much worse- would be any worse- than to make him into a slave- than it was to enact the Fugitive Slave Law- I will accuse him of foolishness, of intellectual incapacity, of making a distinction without a difference. The one is just as sensible a proposition as the other.
Some of Thoreau’s other famous works include essays “Nature” and “Wild Apples” and his books “The Maine Woods” and “Life Without Principle.”
Decades after his death, Thoreau’s writings would inspire the likes of Senator Ted Kennedy and Don Henley, lead singer of the Eagles to preserve the area around Walden Pond in an effort called the Walden Woods Project, which eventually lead to the Thoreau Institute and helps to protect the endangered land around Walden Woods (as well as the woods themselves).
What Is National Simplicity Day?
One of Thoreau’s most recognizable quotes is one from “Walden” in which he declared, “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.”
Another quote from Thoreau urges, “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.”
The quotes emphasize the spirit of National Simplicity Day, which is a self-explanatory prescription: to live simply for a day.
According to Republic World, “With technological innovation, including mobile phones and laptops, the Simplicity Day gives a chance to people to shun the gadgets for a day and enjoy the feeling of truly being in the moment.”
This is particularly true in modern times where, according to a study from Asurion, the average American checks their phone 80 times a day and Nielson found that American adults spend more than eight hours per day using devices such as computers, tablets, smartphones and watching TV.
Thoreau, on the other hand, emphasized slowing down, taking a break and being present in the moment. From “Walden”:
You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.