Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.

The obedient must be slaves.”

Henry David Thoreau


Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817-May 6, 1862) was an American essayist, philosopher, and poet. Thoreau’s writing is heavily influenced by his own life, in particular his time living at Walden Pond. He has a lasting and celebrated reputation for embracing non-conformity, the virtues of a life lived for leisure and contemplation, and the dignity of the individual.

Portrait of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), 1847. Private Collection.
Heritage Images / Getty Images

A leading transcendentalist, he is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay “Civil Disobedience” (originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government”), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.

Thoreau’s books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry amount to more than 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions are his writings on natural history and philosophy, in which he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern-day environmentalism.

His literary style interweaves close observation of nature, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore, while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and attention to practical detail.He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life’s true essential needs.

Thoreau was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the fugitive slave law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending the abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Thoreau is sometimes referred to as an anarchist. In “Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau wrote: “I heartily accept the motto,—’That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,—’That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. … But, to speak practically and as a cit­i­zen, unlike those who call themselves no-gov­ernment men, I ask for, not at once no gov­ernment, but at once a better government.”

Legacy

Thoreau did not see the huge successes in his lifetime that Emerson saw in his. If he was known, it was as a naturalist, not as a political or philosophical thinker. He only published two books in his lifetime, and he had to publish A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers himself, while Walden was hardly a bestseller.

Thoreau is now, however, known as one of the greatest American writers. His thinking has exerted a massive worldwide influence, in particular on the leaders of non-violent liberation movements such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom cited “Civil Disobedience” as a major influence on them.

Like Emerson, Thoreau’s work in transcendentalism responded to and reaffirmed an American cultural identity of individualism and hard work that is still recognizable today. Thoreau’s philosophy of nature is one of the touchstones of the American nature-writing tradition.

But his legacy is not only literary, academic, or political, but also personal and individual: Thoreau is a cultural hero for the way he lived his life as a work of art, championing his ideals down to the most everyday of choices, whether it be in solitude on the banks of Walden or in behind the bars of the Concord jail.

Henry David Thoreau Quotes

“I was not born to be forced.

I will breathe after my own fashion.

Let us see who is the strongest.”

Henry David Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”

Henry David Thoreau

“The question is not what you look at,     but what you see.”

Henry David Thoreau

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

Henry David Thoreau

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.

To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating.

I love to be alone.

I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.

A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.

There is no play in them, for this comes after work.

But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things…”

Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience and Other Essays”

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.

Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land.

There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

Henry David Thoreau

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.

Now put the foundations under them.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“All good things are wild and free.”

Henry David Thoreau

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.

Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”

Henry David Thoreau

“Our life is frittered away by detail.

Simplify, simplify.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden and Other Writings”

“We need the tonic of wildness…

At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.

We can never have enough of nature.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden: Or, Life in the Woods”

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”

Henry David Thoreau, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours…”

Henry David Thoreau

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.

It is not so bad as you are.

It looks poorest when you are richest.

The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.

Love your life, poor as it is.

You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.

The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.

I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“As if you could kill time without     injuring eternity.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”

Henry David Thoreau

“There is no remedy for love but                 to love more.”

Henry David Thoreau

“Things do not change; We change.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”

Henry David Thoreau

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately                     or in the long run.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”

Henry David Thoreau, “I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau”

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

Henry David Thoreau

“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

Henry David Thoreau, “Familiar Letters”

“I do believe in simplicity.

It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit.

When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms.

So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real.

Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.”

Henry David Thoreau

“The preachers and lecturers deal with men of straw, as they are men of straw themselves.

Why, a free-spoken man, of sound lungs, cannot draw a long breath without causing your rotten institutions to come toppling down by the vacuum he makes.

Your church is a baby-house made of blocks, and so of the state.

…The church, the state, the school, the magazine, think they are liberal and free!

It is the freedom of a prison-yard.”

Henry David Thoreau, “I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau”

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“…for my greatest skill has been to want but little.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”


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