A Beast, No More
Updated: Apr 28
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, published in 1854, is one of the greatest non-fiction works in the history of literature. I am joined in this assessment by scads of literary critics past and present. Fiction novels can be educational and enjoyable, and I read them incessantly. But Walden is a thoughtworthy compendium of ruminations that edify and inevitably cause introspection. Introspection is good because without it we might as well be cows or sheep.
In the first section of Walden, entitled Economy, we find this philosophical proposition: “How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it.” Thoreau knew in his bones of what so many journey through life obliviously unaware. Namely, we all live by faith in something. Everyone puts their trust in something and/or finds meaning in life from one thing or another.
The choices are legion. God, gold, goodness, love, another person, science, astrology, etc. You name it, people order their lives around it. Consciously or subliminally we hedge our bets on something for meaning, fulfilment, and security. In other words, we put our faith in something to make life seem worthwhile. Shakespeare put it this way: “What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” (Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 4) Good ol’ 16thcentury Billy knew the same thing as Henry David . . . that sleeping on silk sheets after gorging on steak and lobster does not provide a lasting sense of worth and well-being.
The big question: in what can we put our faith that will make life the worthwhile venture we want it to be? And when the cookie crumbles, when the ball bounces the wrong way, when que-sera-sera becomes I’m-going crazy, what will hold us up? It’s a question that bears serious investigation.