Giving advice to the young — according to Thoreau and to Emerson

Henry David Thoreau, in one of his famously crusty moods, gave some famously negative advice in Walden about accepting advice from those who are older:

Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young.

I’m sure he intended this to be taken seriously — after all he did think it’s important for each person to break from the past and to re-invent himself — but I’m not sure he meant it to be taken literally. After all, how straight would I read someone who also remarks the following, very dryly, tongue in cheek?

It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Thoreau’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said something perhaps wiser — or at least more explicit. Emerson was speaking from the point of view of the advice giver, rather than the getter.

We accompany the youth with sympathy and manifold old sayings of the wise to the gate of the arena, but ’tis certain that not by strength of ours, or of the old sayings, but only on strength of his own, unknown to us or to any, he must stand or fall. That by which a man conquers in any passage is a profound secret to every other being in the world, and it is only as he turns his back on us and on all men and draws on this most private wisdom, that any good can come to him. What we have therefore to say of life is rather description, or if you please, celebration, than available rules. Yet vigor is contagious, and whatever makes us either think or feel strongly, adds to our power and enlarges our field of action.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson
from Considerations by the Way

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