- There Are Nowadays Professors of Philosophy, but not Philosophers
It is remarkable that the first pages of Walden are dedicated to the critique of man's habitual life. Thoreau ironically described it as a worse punishment than the asceticism (l'ascese) of the Brahmans and the twelve tasks of Hercules. Men lead a senseless life (une vie d'insensé). They are in ignorance and error, absorbed by artificial worries and unnecessarily harsh tasks. They are only machines, tools of their tools.1 Their existence is only despair or resignation.
The reason for men's unhappiness, in the eyes of Thoreau, is that they ignore what is necessary and sufficient for life, that is to say, simply everything for maintaining their vital heat. "The grand necessity, then, for our bodies, is to keep warm, to keep the vital heat in us."2 In fact, as Thoreau will demonstrate, man has need of few things for reaching this result, and above all not luxury. "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."3 It suffices to convince ourselves to remember the mode of life of Chinese, Hindu, Persian, and Greek philosophers, poor when it comes to external riches, rich when it comes to internal riches (pauvres pour ce qui est de la richesse extérieure, riches pour ce qui est de la richesse intérieure). These examples now are far from us, but Thoreau continues, "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers."4 That is because for him, "To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, [. . .]5 but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically."6 Thoreau [End Page 229] takes advantage of the occasion to attack professors of philosophy, those great scholars and thinkers whose success is only a "courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly,"7 because in being content with theoretical discourse, they encourage men to keep living in an absurd manner. The life of these philosophers is pure conformity, and they let humanity degenerate in luxury. Thoreau, for his part, implicitly presents himself as the true philosopher, "He is not fed, sheltered, clothed, warmed, like his contemporaries."8 And he ends his discussion, certainly with a little irony, with a definition of the philosopher that may leave us flabbergasted: "How can a man be a philosopher and not maintain his vital heat by better methods than other men?"9 And to maintain his vital heat, man does not need to make great efforts. In order to meet his needs, Thoreau calculates that he works only six weeks a year: "To maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely [. . .]."10
If Thoreau thus leaves to live in the woods, this is evidently not only for maintaining his vital heat in the most economical way possible, but it is that he wants "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."11 "I wanted to live deep," he writes, "and suck out all the marrow of life [. . .]."12 And among these essential acts of life, there is the pleasure of perceiving the world through all his senses. It is to this that, in the woods, Thoreau directs the largest part of his time. One never grows tired of rereading the sensual beginning of the chapter titled "Solitude": "This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirtsleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, . . . all the elements are unusually congenial to me. [. . .] Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost...