Not many books have affected me more than Walden by Henry David Thoreau - for me, it is one of the great essayistic prose works to which I return recurrently.
But it is also a book that helped create and reinforce a delusion in my life - and it seems to be a common delusion in many Western lives for more than a century: the idea that each of us can and should be able to live a life that is both continually-rewarding and objectively-satisfactory. Each of us ought to be able to find and make an earthly paradise...
In Walden, Thoreau uses his personal experience and writerly gifts to create a masterly and evocative account of one year in what seems to be an almost wholly-satisfying life - a life well-lived. And, what is more, this account went on to become a highly-respected and frequently read classic (albeit, Thoreau died before this happened).
As a young, romantic and alienated atheist, this was what I wanted to hear and needed to believe; that this mortal life could be made self-justifying - both on a moment-by-moment basis and overall. It seemed that Thoreau had 'proved' this. The next question was how to do this for myself, in my own life.
Such was the expectation - and I embarked on a simultaneous exploration of my own 'inner' needs and abilities on the one hand; and the 'outward' side and exploration of the world of music, literature and the arts for further ideas and possibilities.
When I discovered Colin Wilson's The Outsider just a few years later, I realized that here was another man on this same quest - since this book surveyed many lives in the same spirit of looking for examples of a life-well-lived; and Wilson announced himself as trying to complete in his own life what these had attempted in theirs.
But after the first flush of excitement; I gradually realized that Wilson's verdict on the lives and works of his exemplars was negative. And I gradually realized, from my own studies in biography - including Thoreau - that this was always the case.
A genius like Thoreau could create an artistic expression of the life-well-lived in this earthly paradise of Walden Pond; but he could not and did not himself actually lead such a life.
The paradise was an artistic artefact - not a human possibility; an illusion which led to a delusion.
And all this is very obvious to most people - I am unusual in that it took me much longer to come to such a conclusion (perhaps due to my unusual capacity for absorption in art, and my personal need); and I only reached it after extensive exploration and years of increasingly-failed attempting.
As is usual, the problem was my faulty metaphysical assumptions. I did not believe in God or a created world, I did not believe in Heaven. Hence I was engaged in the attempt to discover meaning, purpose, coherence and permanent value in a world that I had already decided could have none of these.
The ideal of a life-well-lived could only be a delusion because it could only, at best, last for the period while I was absorbed in a world where the artist was (in effect) God. So long as I dwelt imaginatively inside Walden; for so long I inhabited a purposive and meaning-laden world that the creator (Thoreau) had made - with relevance for my condition and addressing my needs.
But whenever I left this world, I would return to a 'real life' in which I had decided there was no real point or purpose. So the attempt at paradise became an attempt to fool-myself, to make myself feel as if my life was self-justifying; even though I knew (i.e. had decided) it could not be.
This is why I think it is so vitally important for us to recognize that this mortal life is not an end in itself but an education; mortal life is experiences of relevance to life eternal in Heaven, if we learn rightly from them.
As such a life-well-lived is a matter of learning from experience, we can and should set-aside the ideal of constructing for our-selves an earthly paradise.
That such is impossible was, indeed, the wisdom of the most ancient philosophers and theologians who have left records. They knew that this world was intrinsically one of disease, decay and death - a world of evanescence, imperfection and un-satisfactoriness; and that therefore its reason must be sought in its relation to some external world where 'entropy' (as we would call it) does not rule.
For Christians; this external world has been revealed as resurrected eternal life in Heaven; and it is this which gives real and permanent value to this transitory mortal life.
Thus we can recognize our imaginations of living an ideal life in an earthly paradise as delusional; yet we shall not despair!
But instead see life as experience and learning and therefore always be full of hope... and indeed eager anticipation.
Unlike the earthly paradise; such is a wholly realistic and attainable ideal.