Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Savior

When Henry David Thoreau was a lad of seventeen, he walked down an empty road through a cow-dotted Massachusetts valley. The road forked. And as you might have expected, before each branch stood a woman.

The woman on the right was handsome, stern, dark-haired, and held a hoe in her hand. The other was just as beautiful, but with features mild as silk: her blue eyes and golden hair were crowned with a ring of roses. This one spoke first:

“My road,” she said, “leads downhill into a valley of eternal spring, where there’s a wood cabin for you staffed by nymphs and surrounded by winding gardens. You will never be hungry there, nor will you lack for music and literature. You might complain that there won’t be anything to your life once you’ve gone there. But go. You’ll be shocked at how quickly your superstitions against pleasure fade once you stop contorting your soul into righteousness. For my name is Vice, a name besmirched by narrow-minded Puritans who, unable to achieve real pleasure in their lives, enshrined renunciation and lived on its sickly-sweet exhaust fumes. Reject that narrowness, and live freely with me."

And now the second:

"My road is harsh and rocky and steep. You will forever toil in the ascent, nor can you expect any food and water except what you find buried in the dusty earth. Will you be rewarded? In one sense no: there is nothing here to delight the vulgar senses. But in another sense, there is nothing better for a soul than steady work, an abandoning of the trivial, and the sublimation of the desires to highest reason. Listen! That way is pleasure, but this way is Life."

Henry hesitated for a moment, looked both women in the eye, and then walked right off the road into the open meadow. He sang a tune to the cows as he went. When the road was far behind him, he laid down by a brook and fell asleep—still in his clothes—under a starry sky.

Moral. Ever since Hercules stood perplexed at the crossroads, his eyebrow-crinkling choice between virtue and vice has controlled our thinking for four thousand years. But there are more worlds than either Kant or Wilde could imagine; more meadows to explore than the ones carefully mown by the philosophers. More directly: be decent, and you can go wherever—and do whatever—you want. So have an adventure, but only if you wouldn't prefer sitting by the fire.

The original sin, which wasn't the choice, but the choosing.

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