Two Truths in Thoreau's Inconclusive "Conclusion"

Jakob Miller

[1]On July 4th, 1845, Henry David Thoreau began living in a small cabin that he had built near Walden Pond. The date of Thoreau's declaration of independence reveals much about his personality. His choice is at once dramatic, ironic, eamest, and self-important. Thoreau called the two years, two months, and two days that he spent at Walden an "experiment in living." He endeavored to find the foundation for a more simple, honest, and pure life which he contrasted to the lives of "quiet desperation" led by most of his contemporaries. Walden, published in 1854, is an artful manifesto championing his new life. Thoreau's inscription on Walden's original title page trumpets his intention: "I do not propose to write an ode to defection, but to brag as lustily as [a] chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up." Thoreau remains true to his intention throughout Walden; he boasts and proselytizes unabashedly. He commands his neighbors to abandon the pursuit of the possessions which encumber their lives and to cultivate self-understanding instead. Thoreau is, on one hand, a draconian crusader who prescribes a return to nature and simple living. His stern ethical program relies on an objective, unchanging truth. Throughout much of Walden, Thoreau writes as if he has found the answers to most of life's ethical questions. Nonetheless, he moderates his stern gospel through humor, irony, and ambiguity about "truth." Thoreau's indecision about whether there is one objective truth or many subjective truths manifests itself most fully in "Conclusion," the final chapter of Walden. Thoreau's conflicting understandings of truth render his "Conclusion" inconclusive.

In Walden, Thoreau delights in attacking the unthinking materialism of his neighbors. For Thoreau, "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." He reminds his readers that "The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo [sic], Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward." Thoreau demands that conscientious individuals follow the ancient philosophers by choosing a life of poverty: "None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty" (Thoreau 10).* Thoreau acted on his call to voluntary poverty, but, occasionally, his rigor is excessive. For example, Thoreau is "terrified" because three pieces of limestone which sit on his desk require dusting. He responds to the unbearable situation [2] by throwing the limestone out of his window. While musing about the lime-stone incident he asks: "How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground" (29). Thoreau's relation to the material world is both rigid and extreme.

Later in Walden, Thoreau becomes more adamant about the importance of a simple life. Thoreau shouts from his literary pulpit: "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand . . . keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. . . . Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one" (75). His gospel centers on simplicity.

His neighbors' gluttony bothered Thoreau, but his hatred of extraneous wealth extended much further. In his eyes, America, and by extension the Western world, was guilty of over consumption. He encapsulates his understanding of the material sickness of his age:

The nation itself, with all of its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way, are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose (75).

Thoreau's personal habits in Walden mirror his vision for national reform. He is fastidious, almost puritanical, about the smallest details of his life. He bakes unleavened bread according to the recipe of Marcus Porcius Cato, the Roman Stoic (51). He advocates vegetarianism: "I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating ani-mals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized" (181). He abstains from all intoxicants:

I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not a noble liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them! Even music may be intoxicating. Such apparently slight causes destroyed Greece and Rome, and will destroy England and America (182).

Thoreau lusts after purity. He reveals his ascetic aspirations: "If I knew so wise a man as could teach me purity I would go seek him forthwith." Further,

Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open. . . . He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out of him day by day, and the divine being established (184).

In passages like these, Thoreau reads more like a Puritan moralist than a Romantic seer. Thoreau owes much more to the Christian moral code of his neighbors than he cares to admit.

[3]Walden, however, provides much more than severe moral guidelines. When he steps down from his pulpit, Thoreau writes elegantly about nature, furnishes character sketches of his neighbors, comments on local history, quotes from the great writers of the ages, and tells laconic stories. An undercurrent of dry humor also tempers his seriousness. Thoreau knows that unrelentingly serious literary works degenerate too often into unreadable didacticism and pedantry. He escapes these perils through his irony, his wit, his "extravagance", and , and, most importantly, his openness to many truths. These saving graces redeem "Conclusion," Walden's final chapter, and nearly salvage the whole of Walden from Thoreau's Spartan self-righteousness. Thoreau's varying interpretations of "truth" in the "Conclusion" provide Walden with an inconclu-siveness that balances his moral dogmatism. Two visions of truth emerge from Thoreau's inconclusive "Conclusion": an objective truth which supports his rigid ethical claims, and a more subjective "volatile truth" which admits ambiguity. Thoreau's passages about finding a foundation at Walden reflect his interest in an objective, static truth, while his admission that his foundational life at Walden has become too rooted and mundane advances a more subjective, evolving view of truth.

Thoreau's truths arise through ever-deepening self-exploration. He scatters nautical metaphors throughout the opening paragraphs of his "Conclusion" to suggest the boundlessness and the possibilities for discovery within every individual. We must choose to be either "curious passengers" or "stupid sailors" on the "craft" of life. Thoreau refers to figurative, internal voyaging. He exhorts readers to discover "your own streams and oceans [and] explore your own higher latitudes." The individual not only contains metaphorical bodies of water, but also "whole new continents and worlds within" (268). In short, the individual's internal potential is nearly infinite. Thoreau's individual can master life's mysteries, if he or she will only dive deeply enough.

Thoreau tempers his optimism, however, by asserting that genuine soul exploration is exponentially more difficult than the mere discovery of external continents :

It is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone.

He follows this sentence with a loosely translated Latin passage which elucidates the distinction between his project and one of American literature's dominant genres-the road narrative: "Let them wander and scrutinize the outlandish Australians. I have more of God, they have more of the road" (268). Geographical movement does not interest Thoreau. In this light, his decision to plant himself in one place, Walden Pond, becomes understandable. The above quotation, in conjunction with the inner journeying theme developed earlier, helps to justify reading Walden as an inner-road narrative.

Thoreau's consistent concern with finding foundations in the "Conclusion" is symbolic of the inner foundation that he searches for. He encourages his readers [4] to "put the foundation" under the theoretical "castles in the air" that they build (270). He wants to exaggerate enough with his rhetoric to "lay the founda-tion of a true expression" (271). He does not want to "commence to spring an arch before I have got a solid foundation," because he knows that "there is a solid bottom everywhere." He relates a story about a man who asked a boy "if the swamp before him had a hard bottom." The boy answered that the swamp had a bottom. When the man began sinking, the boy reminded him that the swamp indeed had a bottom, but that the man was not yet half way there. Thoreau decides that "so it is with the bogs and quicksands of society" (275). If foundation-finding is important, and if Thoreau is as certain about moral issues as he claims, then why does he leave Walden?

Laying a foundation implies permanence, stability, and moral certainty. Thoreau is unsatisfied, however, with the foundation that he has laid at Walden because of an equally pervasive current in his "Conclusion" against routines and rigid meanings. In the often-quoted passage about why he leaves Walden, Thoreau compares the worn path which he has created from his house to the pond with "the ruts of tradition and conformity!" (270). Thoreau's contradictory understandings of truth leave him unsatisfied either way. Laying a simple, pure foundation through vigorous contemplation is the sine qua non of his philosophy, but precisely when he seems to reach what he has struggled after at Walden, he decides that his goal is oppressive rather than liberating. His foundation becomes a rut.

On the one hand, he encourages the reader to look for foundational truths; while on the other he emphasizes truth's open meanings. He believes that "No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well." Later in the paragraph he states that "In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is. . . . Any truth is better than make-believe" (273). The unavoidable questions become, what are the "facts," what is the "truth?" Thoreau defines "truth" only negatively when he exclaims "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth" (276). Thoreau works with an objective, if amorphous, "truth" in these passages.

Conversely, he laces the "Conclusion" with many subjective definitions of "truth." In these more subjective passages, "truth" is more fluid and evolving. For instance, his readers' "ridiculous demand" that he make himself understood angers him. These insolent readers suppose that "Nature [can] support but one order of understandings" (270). Implicitly then, Nature supports many under-standings or truths. Thoreau wishes to "speak without bounds," rather than lim-iting himself to narrow comprehensibility. He claims that "The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. . . . The words with which we express our faith and piety are not definite yet they are significant" (271). Thoreau reiterates his complaint against narrow readers in the following paragraph:

In this part of the world it is considered a ground for complaint if a man's writ-ings admit of more than one interpretation. While England endeavors to cure the [5] potato-rot, will not any endeavor to cure the brain-rot, which prevails so much more widely and fatally?

His emphatic language about the multiplicity of meanings and the indefiniteness or fluidity of "truth" stands in stark contrast to the definite truth he espoused earlier. Thoreau the chaste, pure, simple Spartan of "only the facts" meets Thoreau the Anarchist of "volatile truth."

Thoreau's ambivalence about "truth" may constitute an insurmountable contradiction in his thought, or, more likely, it may create a delicate balance. He uses both interpretations of "truth" to render his message most effective. If he favors only a rigid, objective "truth," then his message becomes heavy-handed and preachy; while if "truth" is constantly open to question, then he can make very few of the normative ethical claims that anchor Walden thematically. Thoreau's passages about indefinite "truth" temper a Spartan message that would become unpalatable without them. Walden's rhetoric benefits from Thoreau's uncertainty about "truth."


*All citations are from Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966).