A Well-Worn Path

In the Conclusion of Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes about what he learned while living at Walden Pond and what he came to understand there. In the fourth paragraph, Thoreau writes about the simple path he wore through the trees from his cabin to the pond, and from there makes the transition from experience to theory. He writes about this path and wonders how easily paths must be worn in other areas of life, as well, because “The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” If, in only a week, a man can walk a path enough that it endures for years after he is gone, what can years of traditions do to a society? In this theorizing, he extrapolates his own experience and projects it onto the greater world around him. The shift from experience to theory here is very gentle, and although it happens suddenly the reader is not aware of the change until it is already well under way. This is because of how smoothly it fits in, both with the structure of the passage and the content of the previous paragraphs. The transition ties in with the beginning of Conclusion, where Thoreau writes about boundaries people set for themselves, closing themselves in and limiting their own lives when there is no reason to do so. In the same way, he worries “that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open.” If others have begun to use the path that he created, he is the origin of a boundary that they conform to and that is not what he desired to achieve with his time at the pond.
I think this passage is especially interesting. In it, Thoreau takes the simple and hackneyed idea of a well-worn path and pushes his audience to look at it applied to the bigger picture. The sentiment also links back to the idea Thoreau wrote about earlier in Walden about how people should choose their own courses and not let other people’s opinions influence their choices of how to live their lives. The world is full of traditions and precedents, but just because they are the most obvious or easy choices does not mean that they are the only choices.

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