By Anthony Miller
In a peculiar journal entry from 1841, Henry David Thoreau recalls the myth of the Sphinx and its riddle, commenting “our Sphinx is so wise as to put no riddle that can be answered. It is a great presumption to answer conclusively a question which any sincerity has put. The wise answer no questions–nor do they ask them.” Whereas the Sphinx of Greek mythology must self-destruct upon having her riddle answered, Thoreau presents an alternative, one of presumed immortality – after all, a Sphinx who puts forth an unanswerable question need not worry of any Oedipus solving her riddle. But more interesting is Thoreau’s idea of how such immortality can be achieved through the process of questioning, and at times, by pressing against this process as well. By writing “it is a great presumption to answer conclusively a question which any sincerity has put,” Thoreau alludes to the idea that most answers to questions are mere surmises, for how can any question of sincerity ever fully be answered? The act of answering a question is the same as drawing a conclusion to bring closure – by putting forth an answer to a question, we assume that we understand well enough the functions of truth and experience to comment definitively on the nature of things. But as Thoreau suggests in declaring that the wise ask no questions nor attempt to answer them, there is a certain sense of enlightenment that comes with living to experience rather than living to know.
When Thoreau went to the woods to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” he did so under the impression that he could separate precisely “all that was not life” from all that is. But as he realizes upon leaving the pond, living deliberately is much less of an end-goal than it is a continuous and active process that requires getting lost a few times along the way. One way to better understand Thoreau’s intent is to look into the etymology of “question.” Question derives from the Latin quaestion-, which means “act of searching, problem, subject of discussion.” From a fundamental level, to question something is to consider it from all angles in order to better understand and perceive its functions. But nowhere in the basic definition does it imply there is an answer, only the search involved in finding one. It is this search that Thoreau finds himself in at Walden Pond, and it is this search that he recognizes has no answer, no destination. Much in the way that Thoreau would like to “toe the line” between the past and present, he too wishes to live in the state between question and answer – the state of mystery. And by getting lost and living our lives in this state of mystery – accepting that we cannot and will not ever know Nature – we find our true purpose.