Friday, May 28, 2010

Thoreau on Men-Harriers

From the "Visitors" chapter of Walden:

I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my visitors. Girl and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improved their time. Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not. Restless committed men, whose time was an taken up in getting a living or keeping it; ministers who spoke of God as if they enjoyed a monopoly of the subject, who could not bear all kinds of opinions; doctors, lawyers, uneasy housekeepers who pried into my cupboard and bed when I was out- how came Mrs.- to know that my sheets were not as clean as hers?- young men who had ceased to be young, and had concluded that it was safest to follow the beaten track of the professions- all these generally said that it was not possible to do so much good in my position. Ay! there was the rub. The old and infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger- what danger is there if you don't think of any?- and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position, where Dr. B. might be on hand at a moment's warning. To them the village was literally a community, a league for mutual defence, and you would suppose that they would not go a-huckleberrying without a medicine chest. The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs. Finally, there were the self-styled reformers, the greatest bores of all, who thought that I was forever singing,
This is the house that I built;
This is the man that lives in the house that I built;
but they did not know that the third line was,
These are the folks that worry the man
That lives in the house that I built.
I did not fear the hen-harriers, for I kept no chickens; but I feared the men-harriers rather.
"A man sits as many risks as he runs" -- for Thoreau, other people served chiefly as foils, cautionary examples, points of departure, exemplars of all the wrong priorities. It's not easy to find where he's wrong in that.

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