Book Review: Walden by Henry David Thoreau (Two Stars)

Book Review: Walden by Henry David Thoreau (Two Stars)

“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”

Third time’s a charm. I forced myself to finish this. Musings of a self-absorbed twit do not improve with age. Like most thirty-somethings, Thoreau has figured out life: everyone else are phonies or sell outs. He is the only honest man, and he means to tell that to the world.

“I had an old axe which nobody claimed.”

Thoreau camps out on land he didn’t pay for, builds a hut with a little bought, mostly used or “harvested” materials, using “borrowed” tools, grows peas, eats gruel almost daily, and wonders why everyone else doesn’t do the same. He’d fit right in with some modern politicians.

“It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it” “What I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics. It is the law of average.” “In our bodies, a bold projecting brow falls off to and indicates a corresponding depth of thought.”

One page he decries people who repeat unlikely wisdom without checking for themselves, then a few pages later he extrapolates his measures of one pond to a universal rule for all bodies of water, manner of men, and even borders on phrenology—positing one’s personality by the shape of one’s brow.

“Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.”

As a bonus, the reader gets “On Civil Disobedience” too.

“I hesitate to say these things, but it is not because of the subject—I care not how obscene my words are—but because I cannot speak of them without betraying my impurity. We discourse freely without shame of one form of sensuality, and are silent about another.”

Thoreau is a keen observer, a facile writer, and detailed recorder. Some passages are worth reading. Most readers, however, will reach the end and wonder what the fuss is.

“Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.”

Book Review: Pensées by Blaise Pascal (Part One)

Book Review: Pensées by Blaise Pascal (Part One)

Five Stars (provisional)

“Do you wish people to believe good of you? Don’t speak.”

Pascal was the master of the one liner. Pensées is laced with aphorisms. It also overflows with serious considerations. Not to be read fast or superficially. (Unfortunately my first reading in the 1960s was both.) Therefore, this review will be in sections, as I read the major subdivisions of the text.

“The last thing one settles in a book is what one should put in first.”

Since Pensées was not published before Pascal died in 1662, textual inclusion and order are disputed. This 1958 English translation (available free on Project Gutenberg) includes an excellent Introduction by Nobel laureate T. S. Eliot.

“It is far better to know something about everything, than to know all about one thing.”

Being an unfinished work, inconsistency of flow and expression are not surprising. What is unexpected is that he beat the Enlightenment by a century and even anticipated some modern thinking.

“Who doubts that our soul, being accustomed to see number, space, motion believes that and nothing else?”

One of the greatest mathematical and scientific theorists of his time, Pascal intended Pensées to be a defense of the Christian religion, but boldly admitted the case of the sceptic. Pascal’s other great work, Provincial Letters, addressed the abuses of contemporary Catholicism even though Pascal remained a communicant his whole life. He died in Paris at age 39.

“What is a man in the infinite?”