Sunday, May 7, 2017
100 REFLECTIONS: The Sages of Concord #30
Moral Aphorism in Thoreau’s Walden
The Fox in Details, Details in the Fox
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is a philosophical treatise in the guise of a memoir. It is filled with aphorisms, witticisms, sweeping declarations, admonitions, poems, complaints, observations and more. He shows up, he observes, he sums up: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes;” “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation;” “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” These are all aphorisms, pithy observations that contain general truths.
He uses logic in search of freedom, rationalization in search of wisdom. He turns things on their heads in order to get a new perspective and discovers the importance of tails, or lack thereof: “He was the lucky fox that left his tail in a trap.” The very things which we cherish most may be those things which imprison or chain or trap us by virtue of our attachment to them. The use of a fox, as opposed to a bear or a woodchuck, subtly (and cunningly) suggests slyness and cunning. The reader is thrown off, purposely, by the word “lucky.” We are apt to react in surprise: “How can it be luck to lose your tail in a trap?” We are forced to think and to consider the alternatives. We then realize that the “unlucky” fox (or bear) lost more than its tail. We are reminded that “the muskrat will gnaw his third leg off to be free.” We are also reminded of the idea that it sucks to get old until you consider the alternative.
Thoreau has begun this paragraph writing about furniture and about how it is not a necessity that we spend much time or money on it. “There is a plenty of such chairs as I like best in the village garrets to be had for taking them away.” We realize that, if chairs are being left behind by starving artists who live in unfinished attics, then we need not spend a lot of money on them. When we put two and two together, we realize that Thoreau is telling us, in no uncertain terms that, when trapped by the temptations of luxurious living, we had better forego the luxurious and keep the living. This is the moral of the “tail.” As beautiful or even functional as a tail may be, it is, in the final analysis, a luxury.