Unlocking the Chastity of Walden Pond
- Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
- The Bean-Field
- The Village
- The Ponds
- Baker Farm
- Higher Laws
- Brute Neighbors
- Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors
- Winter Animals
- The Pond in Winter
Chastity is a word that brings up ideas like virginity or purity; usually it doesn’t bring to mind restraint from saying things that embarrass us or everyday activities. Thoreau constructs a new definition of chastity in his essay “Walden Pond”. He defines it as a law that people should learn to live by, but not just in the sexual sense. He defines it as something we should use to help us restrain from certain duties that prevent us from living simply, something to prevent the degrading of the mind and soul.
When hunting for a definition of “chastity” one would find phrases such as, “the quality or state of being chaste: as abstention from unlawful sexual intercourse, purity in conduct and intention, or restraint and simplicity in design or expression” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). It’s quite possible that Thoreau may have had “restraint and simplicity in design or expression” in mind when constructing his chapter “Higher Laws”. In the terms of the romantic vision, chastity is essential for the romantic idea of living simply among nature and controlling certain impulses.
The idea of living simply means just that, living with only what you need not what you want. The book Walden was about Thoreau's experience living in a cabin near Walden Pond. He lived there for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days and wanted to do an experiment of the human condition and what it would take to live simply. "The book compresses the time into a single calendar year and uses passages of four seasons to symbolize human development" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walden). Thoreau decided to be an introvert in order to gain an objective look on society. "Simple living and self-sufficiency were Thoreau's other goals, and the whole project was inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, a central theme of the American Romantic Period." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walden).
Thoreau describes his reasoning for this experiment in the Grammardog Guide to Walden as follows: " 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 out 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." (p. 25). I believe Thoreau wanted to gain something more than just human connection but a connection to all living things around him. He wanted to experience all the earth had to offer without the distractions society brings.
Nature is central in Thoreau’s idea of chastity because while living in nature he is able to reach this heightened state of ecstasy and basses his law of chastity on the laws which nature can teach someone. He is allowed to be one with nature and sit back and watch God’s work at his best because he has chosen to control his human urges to give into luxuries and other impulses. In “The Pond in Winter” Thoreau compares the pond to the universe saying that it contains the “laws of Nature” in that everything is connected like in a pond for example, if you toss in a rock the ripples grow and touch everything in their path the same is true if you were living in society by their laws (Thoreau). Thoreau views nature as this pure existence that man is trying to corrupt with his locomotives and highways.
From the very beginning of his essay on Walden, Thoreau sets out to live as simply as possible and restrain from what others define as necessary such as buying items that serve no purpose. When he talks about what is necessary to live he discusses the basic essentials like food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. In the “Economy” chapter he discusses these four basic needs to survive and the surrounding factor is keeping warm. Thoreau goes on to say that people who live beyond these basics are hindering themselves from becoming higher versions of themselves: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”, so people must restrain their impulses to buy luxuries of comforts that society uses to blind them in order to reach a higher elevated state within (Thoreau). Thoreau mentions later in “Economy” that a woman tried to offer him a mat to place outside of his door, but he refuses to accept it because it would be a hassle to shake it everyday and that the sod will do just fine. He goes so far to even say that this mat or the idea of wasting time shaking out the mat would be “the beginnings of evil” (Thoreau). This relates closely to the law of chastity because Thoreau is arguing that in order for us to be truly happy we must learn to control the way we live and learn to live simply. He also is pointing out that by living under the constraint of these luxuries we are being impure because we are allowing unnecessary evils to dictate the way our lives are run.
In “Higher Laws” Thoreau defines chastity as “the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it” (Thoreau). He is defining it as something that mankind needs in order to reach some divine state and doesn’t seem to be limiting it to the sexual sense but expanding the definition to encompass all daily activities in order to avoid evils such as the mat in the “Economy” chapter. Thoreau then goes on to discuss our purities and impurities and I think he means that in the world there are evils all around us but unless we control our urges to follow the herd then we will become victims of this impurity.
Chastity is essential for living a better, simpler life. It allows a person to see further than just a persons status or external appearance. When we restrain from the luxuries that society claims as necessities only then are we able to reach this higher state of being. Thoreau’s experiment at Walden is a model for how we could simplify our lives and end up actually getting more out of life, because when you get rid of all the frivolous items in life you are only left with understanding the truth and how to live a life closer to God and closer to nature. The law of chastity is about living a more prudent life free from the unneeded labors and hassles.
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Search eText, Read Online, Study, Discuss.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Searchable etext. Discuss with other readers.
Henry David Thoreau
Lecture on Walden
Found an interesting lecture on Walden. It may help to better understand the work of Walden in it's entirety.
Found this interesting interview with a teacher who wrote a book "Why Teach". He talks about why students should read Walden near the end of the interview.
Grammardog Guide to Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, Grammardog LLC, ISBN 1-60857-084-3, pg 25