Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Walden

 

Summary
  1. Henry David Thoreau went to live in the woods for two years and two months in order to live deliberately and to distance himself from society. The ultimate book on self-sufficiency and simplicity
Key Takeaways
  1. “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 practice 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, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
  2. Men have become the tools of their tools.” 
  3. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
  4. Key points – Less is better, the civilized man is a more experienced and wiser savage, live life fully, self reliance is key, simplicity, anti-consumerism
What I got out of it
  1. While there is controversy over how true Thoreau was to this lifestyle (some say he visited friends, dined and lived luxuriously for short spurts), it is nonetheless a fascinating book about living minimally, efficiently and naturally. We really need so little to be content and this book is the epitome of that notion. Slow at times but well worth it to get the overall lessons and great quotes.

Buy Walden

  • “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months.”  (1845)
  • “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.”
  • “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.” 
  • “When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.
  • “My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as foolish.”
  •  “All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.”
  • “It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.”
  •  “The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To get his shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle. With consummate skill he has set his trap with a hair spring to catch comfort and independence, and then, as he turned away, got his own leg into it. This is the reason he is poor; and for a similar reason we are all poor in respect to a thousand savage comforts, though surrounded by luxuries.”
  • I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart, with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.”
  • Men have become the tools of their tools.” 
  • “For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.”
  • “In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.”
  • “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”
  • “Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with wrong-doing.”
  • Last paragraph of this chapter is very powerful – “The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to—for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well—is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”
Economy
  • “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”
  • “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
  • “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us!”
  • “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” When one man has reduced a fact of the imagination to be a fact to his understanding, I foresee that all men at length establish their lives on that basis.”
  • “It appears, therefore, from the above list, that the expression, animal life, is nearly synonymous with the expression, animal heat; for while Food may be regarded as the Fuel which keeps up the fire within us—and Fuel serves only to prepare that Food or to increase the warmth of our bodies by addition from without—Shelter and Clothing also serve only to retain the heat thus generated and absorbed.”
  • There are so few necessities in life – food, shelter and clothing. “luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot; as I implied before, they are cooked, of course à la mode. Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
  • “With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindu, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward.”
  • “I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.
  • speaks of his life before going into the forest – was a reporter, concerned with material things, inspector of snow storms,
  • Let him who has work to do recollect that the object of clothing is, first, to retain the vital heat, and secondly, in this state of society, to cover nakedness, and he may judge how much of any necessary or important work may be accomplished without adding to his wardrobe.
  • Speaks a lot about clothing and how men should dress simply and that fads are ridiculous
  • Says the same about shelter and how little we truly need. gives examples of Indians and Laplanders who sleep in freezing temperatures with only a thin sheet of cloth separating them. The city dwellers can hardly afford their rent whereas the “barbarians” own their own homes
  • Bought a man’s house near Walden Pond and took it apart to build a better one
  • Moved in on July 4, 1845
  • “I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite.”
  • Built his house for $28.12
  • “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at”
  • “I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freer.”
  • Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners?”
  • Did not have to trade or barter for any of his food
  • “A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.”
  • “Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.”
Where I Lived, What I Lived For
  • Walden Pond, moved in July 4, 1845 but house was not ready for winter
  • Stresses simplicity, living with nature and not adding complexities/material items/”evil” into your life
  • bathed every morning and considered it a ritual and extremely important
  • “Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.”
  • Critical of the post office, news,
  • “The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us. Let us spend our lives in conceiving then.”
  • “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry—determined to make a day of it.”
  • “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”
  • “I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.”

Reading

  • A huge fan of books and reading and especially ancient epics. “It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;—not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech. “
Sounds
  • “No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.”
  • Recalls how nice it was to be able to clean his house in a morning and just listen to the birds and the wind
  • Speaks of a train that he used to listen to which was built close by to where he lived. He likes commerce and believes it is a natural and adventurous lifestyle
  • Speaks also to the other sounds he would hear – birds, bells, and other animals
  • Describes the sounds in such detail. has the time and no distractions to truly listen and get to know the world around him
Solitude
  • “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore.”
  • He lives out of sight of any other houses. “It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”
  • “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded. I do not flatter myself, but if it be possible they flatter me. I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude,”
  • “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.”
  • “The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature—of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter—such health, such cheer, they afford forever!”

Visitors

  • But fewer came to see me on trivial business. In this respect, my company was winnowed by my mere distance from town. I had withdrawn so far within the great ocean of solitude, into which the rivers of society empty, that for the most part, so far as my needs were concerned, only the finest sediment was deposited around me. Beside, there were wafted to me evidences of unexplored and uncultivated continents on the other side.”
  • Speaks about one of his neighbors – a Canadian woodchopper who is very simple and happy “To a stranger he appeared to know nothing of things in general; yet I sometimes saw in him a man whom I had not seen before, and I did not know whether he was as wise as Shakespeare or as simply ignorant as a child, whether to suspect him of a fine poetic consciousness or of stupidity. A townsman told me that when he met him sauntering through the village in his small close-fitting cap, and whistling to himself, he reminded him of a prince in disguise.”

The Bean-Field

  • He loves his very large bean garden. He feels like it connects him to earth and is calming
  • “But labor of the hands, even when pursued to the verge of drudgery, is perhaps never the worst form of idleness. It has a constant and imperishable moral, and to the scholar it yields a classic result.”
The Village
  • Visits the village every once in a while like others visit the forests. instead of observing birds and other animals, he is observing people
  • “I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”
  • “The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass—the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.”

The Ponds

  • Describes Walden Pond in great detail – a big and beautiful lake with supremely pure water and a wide variety of animals
  • Also describes other ponds close by
Baker Farm
  • Speaks to an Irish farmer who lives nearby. He works so hard so he and his family can have tea, coffee, beef, cheese, etc. everyday. However, the family’s very hard work to acquire these things cause them to eat much more of these things and therefore require harder work. It is a vicious cycle and Henry tries to convince him that there are other modes of life – simpler living – where he might not eat as well but will enjoy life’s other luxurious much more
Higher Laws
  • “I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good. The wildness and adventure that are in fishing still recommended it to me. I like sometimes to take rank hold on life and spend my day more as the animals do.”
  •  Was mostly vegetarian and believed in eating very little – “I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind.”
  •  “I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness. I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them! Even music may be intoxicating. Such apparently slight causes destroyed Greece and Rome, and will destroy England and America. Of all curiosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?”
  • “All sensuality is one, though it takes many forms; all purity is one. It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep sensually. They are but one appetite, and we only need to see a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist he is. The impure can neither stand nor sit with purity.”
Brute Neighbors
  • Speaks of the various different animal species which lived in the woods around him and even in his own home
  • Described an ant battle which he says was more engaging and courageous than any battle in human history
House Warming
  • speaks of when it started to get cold and how he built his chimney and insulated his house
Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors
  • Spoke to some of the people who lived nearby him at Walden
  • “A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love.”
  • “How blind that cannot see serenity!”

Winter Animals

  • With so much time on his hands, he makes observations about animals and their behavior that most would simply overlook

The Pond in Winter

  • Speaks to how he gets fish from the frozen pond during winter
  • Walden known as a bottomless pond because it is so deep
  • Describes the process of men cutting up the ice to bring to market and sell
  • “They told me that they had some in the ice-houses at Fresh Pond five years old which was as good as ever. Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever? It is commonly said that this is the difference between the affections and the intellect.”

Spring

  • Ice on pond begins to break apart and speaks to the very loud noises it makes when the ice breaks up
  • Describes other spring events as well – growing of trees, animals coming back out of hibernation, etc.
  • Left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847 after living there for 2 years and 2 months
Conclusion
  • “Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? 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 which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer?”
  • “In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is. Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.”
  • “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. The town’s poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any. Maybe they are simply great enough to receive without misgiving.”
  • “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”
On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
  • Against government and wants as little government as possible. He thinks that in an ideal world there would be no government at all
  • “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.”
  • “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”
  • “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.”
  • “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.”
  • “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission.”
  • Spent a night in prison for not paying poll tax – however, he felt it was amusing and an interesting experience
  • “When I came out of prison—for some one interfered, and paid that tax—I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a youth and emerged a tottering and gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene—the town, and State, and country—greater than any that mere time could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions…”

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