In an age that seems, from the perspective of ours, already cut close to the bone, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) rejected the 19th-century rat race for two years, experimenting with a simple existence in his friend Emerson's cabin on the edge of Concord, Mass. "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." Here is what he found: "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" (Walden).
What would Thoreau make of an entire aisle at Pathmark devoted to dog food-silent, bitter war for brand name shelf hegemony? In his pushback to simplicity, Thoreau had not even conceived of the advertising brood not yet born, those masters of stoking desire. When the first cars sputtered off the assembly line, Henry Ford said of his Model T in 1909, "Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it's black." But along came public relations pioneer Edward L. Bernays (Sigmund Freud's nephew), who saw dark veins of the human psyche to be mined for profit. One man's primal need for a red Corvette cannot be underestimated or overexploited.
I am a capitalist, at least in the sense that I am not a socialist. But one can be a capitalist and still rue the extinction of the last faint rays of human contemplation. I walk down the street and the rare human I encounter is plugged into an electronic device. This works out well for me as a writer of short essays, of course. The more rare the homo sapiens practice of reflection, the more in demand my own poor ruminations will be. Except, I suppose, that one needs readers. Oh well.
I go back and forth about Thoreau. On the one hand, there is the deafening absence, in every line of Walden, of the lordship of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, there are large swaths of intersection with Ecclesiastes: "All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied" (6:7). The conclusions are different, to be sure. Thoreau retreats to live "intentionally" in the woods; Koheleth's final resolve is to "fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (12:13).
How to "fear God" in 2011, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in His eyes to bail out at some point of this inexorable march of progress (or is it Eden's regress?) is for every man to decide-though the wherewithal for authentic decisions may be the very thing compromised in the particle accelerator that is our modern culture. I finally broke down and bought a prepaid cell phone at 7-Eleven because of a trip I was taking to Michigan. It felt like capitulation, but I'm not sure.
Thoreau is right about one thing: "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers." Except I fear it in theology. (Why should I care about philosophy?) In church nave and lakeside cabin alike, Jesus' question clots the air: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8). It is certain that He will find religion, but will he find the childlike simplicity of trust?
What builds faith? Jude says it is prayer (v. 20). What is required for prayer? A mind hospitable to contemplation, and not taken over by the squatters of "the kingdom of noise" (C.S. Lewis) and "the revolting invasion of commercial advertising, . . . TV stupor, and . . . intolerable music" (Alexander Solzhenitsyn).
Harvard thought Solzhenitsyn came to praise it in 1978. He did not. He rejected socialism: "Socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death" ("A World Split Apart"). But he also rejected Western materialism: "The Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive . . . the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer."
Short of moving into Emerson's rental property near Concord's lakes, I need to find a way this year to deal with the BlackBerry age and to live before God intentionally.
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