In a lecture entitled “Life Without Principle” (published posthumously in 1863), philosopher Henry David Thoreau warns us: “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.”
Almost two decades earlier Thoreau had moved into his cabin on Walden Pond, embarking upon a two-year experiment in the pursuit of a more simple, quiet and pure life, in contrast, he believed, to that of the mass of humanity, who “lead lives of quiet desperation.” “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” he asks in Walden (1852).
“…We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still…. Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half-hour, doubtless for no other purpose…. For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life — I wrote this some years ago — that were worth the postage. The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely offered in jest…. To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip. There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival, that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure — news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelve-month, or twelve years, beforehand with sufficient accuracy…. and as for England, almost the last significant scrap of news from that quarter was the revolution of 1649…. The preacher, instead of vexing the ears of drowsy farmers on their day of rest at the end of the week — for Sunday is the fit conclusion of an ill-spent week, and not the fresh and brave beginning of a new one — with this one other draggle-tail of a sermon, should shout with thundering voice, ‘Pause! Avast! Why so seeming fast, but deadly slow?'”(ch.2).
Thoreau lived in the middle of the nineteenth century, when America was rapidly industrializing as well as clearing and settling its frontier with an alarming mindlessness. The materialism and hustle-bustle of the young nation filled the young philosopher with horror, as he saw that all this activity produced a great deal of heat and dust, but little light. For him the various appurtenances and necessities of modern life had become an obstacle to “elevated thought.” For Plato “the unexamined life was not worth living”; for Thoreau, it was no life at all.
What would the Sage of Walden think of our lives today? We rise early to check our email, post vapid comments on our Facebook pages, check email again, then log in repeatedly during the day to see if someone has left an even more inane comment to our comment; watch our 24-hour news channels, then retire, but not before checking our email one last time. Not to mention, of course, that we hold our smart phones next to our hearts, insuring that anyone on God’s decreasingly green earth can reach us at any moment of the day. If that would not be enough to make old Thoreau disappear deeper into the woods, never to be heard from again, then I’ll turn in my English degree.
William Powers in his recent book Hamlet’s Blackberry, examines the way this technological revolution has made things like solitude and deep thought a distant memory. As he described it on a recent PBS interview, “I was feeling, in my work, in my family life, and just really kind of inside my own head a crowdedness, a sort of never — never quiet time.” With all the phone calls, email, Facebook posts, tweets, blogs, comments, etc. Powers feels he and his family had reached what he calls “digital maximalism.”
Powers is no Luddite, however, hurling execration on modern life, since as a confessed multitasker he cannot do without the internet, email and cell phone himself. The issue for him is one of balance. The answer, he says, is to “do what Thoreau did, which is learn to have a little disconnectedness within the connected world… don’t run away.” The Powers clan, who now live in a quiet corner of Cape Cod, practice what they call an Internet Sabbath, turning off the modem from Friday evening until Monday morning. “What we saw in our family life was something was being leached out of our togetherness and our communication by turning away from each other toward the screen and even just communicating with each other on the screen. We were e-mailing across the house, you know, when we could walk a few steps and have a conversation.” [Hmm, come to think of it, we do that all the time at the office.]
Having hit bottom, the author began a search of the great thinkers of the past (such as Socrates, Plato, Seneca, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, and Thoreau), and found they each had confronted similar technological challenges. Socrates, for example, bemoaned the advent of the written alphabet since people no longer had to remember anything; they could just look it up. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, who also had a role in the Roman imperial government, complained that he and his colleagues were absolutely inundated with mail, with people constantly checking for the latest dispatches from overseas. Pulled in so many directions by his responsibilities, he realized he had to find a tranquil place he could retire to, even if it was only in his mind. Ben Franklin, too, knew the power of staying connected, but also the need for moments of quiet reflection.
These days Powers tours the country talking about the importance of “selective disconnecting.” “One of the first talks I gave about the book,” he says, “was in Los Angeles to a fairly large audience, people of many different ages. And after the speech, the people who came up to me and really buttonholed me most urgently were — tended to be younger people. And a few of them really had tears in their eyes and said, you know, I have never — I didn’t even know this was an option.”
As I write this blog, dear reader, I have just realized that my wife left several minutes ago saying she was going to take our 2-year-old daughter out for her first tricycle ride. What in the world am I doing here? What would Thoreau say? I’ll see you later. “Honey, wait up!”