A Collection of Wisdom

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)is one of the most notable and influential American figures in thought and literature.

Transcendentalist Movement, and The Dial

Like his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry was also part of the transcendentalist movement. Along with Emerson and several others, Henry contributed to and co-edited the transcendental magazine The Dial in the early 1840s.

Life at Walden Pond

Perhaps the most profound part of Henry’s life was a two-year span from 1845 to 1847. During that time, he lived primarily in a small cabin that he built on Emerson’s land alongside Walden Pond. In Henry’s words, he went there to be “living deep and sucking out all the marrow of life,” and to “front only the essential facts of life.”

While he was there, Henry lived free of materialistic pursuits, and supported himself by growing vegetables and doing odd jobs in the nearby village. He spent most of his time observing nature, reading, and writing. Much of the writing he did was in a journal that he had been keeping since around the age 20. Henry continued writing in his journal for the rest of his life, and the writings in it later became the basis for most of his essays and books.


Most notable among the works he later distilled from those journal entries of that time was a book titled Walden, which was not written and published until years later in 1854. In Walden, Henry uses his experience at Walden Pond to express his ideas on how people can become attune to the nature of themselves and of the natural world. Walden also outlines Henry’s transcendentalist philosophy.

Some of the main points and underlining themes in Walden include:


Inspired by the ideals Emerson and transcendentalism, Henry points out the significance of including independence and solitude as a part of one’s life, and living in with a sense of self-sufficiency. However, he also acknowledges the value of social interaction and companionship.

Henry encourages others to take part in enjoying their inner selves and nature, and acknowledge their right to be different, and to engage in free thought and action instead of falling into social conformity. He recommends that people avoid being too needy on other people or on society as a whole, or be overly concerned with social formalities.

Henry also explains his belief in economic self-reliance, and the ideas that one should be in charge of producing for oneself and managing expenditures.

Additionally, Henry deals with self-reliance in the spiritual sense. Transcendentalism teaches that the inner self is the center of reality, and Henry believes that the self-reliant attitude allows him to be in harmony with nature, and make it part of his soul


Henry believes in simplicity both economically and philosophically. He denounces materialism, and places an importance on minimizing consumer activity. Henry believes in skipping irrelevancies and sticking to what is truly useful.

Interestingly enough, however, Henry’s literary style in Walden is not very simplified at all.

Determining what is Genuine Progress and Improvement

Henry questions whether advances in technology, economy and territory should really be labeled as progress, especially since he feels that they don’t contribute to finding inner peace. He points to the poor labor conditions that were a part of the industrial environment at that time. Henry feels that most types of progress are actually illusions of progress.

Henry focuses a lot of commentary on train traveling. He points out that many people who frequently travel often neglect to explore the wonders and intricacies that lie right in their own neighborhood.

Seasonal Cycles

The yearly cycle of the seasons is a recurring them in Walden, and Henry alludes that it corresponds to other facets of universal truth.

Passages from Walden

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.

What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.

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

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. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine.

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.

I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery.

Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.

Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily…

“On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”

During his days at Walden Pond, Henry was jailed one night in 1846 because of his conscientious refusal to pay a poll tax that supported the Mexican War. He did that to protest the war, which he believed was part of the US government’s efforts to extend slavery.

In 1849, Henry drew upon that experience and published an essay entitled “Resistance to Civil Government,” which later was renamed “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” It is considered one of the most influential writings in world history, and had had a wide-ranging impact throughout the world. It was an importance influence on events such as:

the early British Labor movement of the late 1800s

the Mahatma Gandhi-led passive resistance independence movement in India in the early to mid 1900s


the Martin Luther King Jr. led nonviolent civil-rights movement in the US in the mid 1900s

It also had an impact on:

the Danish resistance in the 1940s

the opposition to McCarthyism in the 1950s

the struggle against the South African apartheid in the 1960s


the US anti-war movement in the 1970s

Main Points of “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”

recommends that people prioritize their own conscience ahead of the government’s laws

points out that an individual isn’t responsible for devoting himself to eliminating evils in the world, but is responsible for choosing not to participate in those evils

calls for a passive resistance to unfair laws

encourages people to refuse to follow unfair laws, and to distance and disassociate themselves from unfair governments

encourages others to use civil disobedience in order to protest against unfair government actions

comments that a government is usually not very useful, and its power from the majority does not necessarily indicate that it has a valid position

comments on the difficulty of trying to reform an unfair government within the unfair government, and argues that voting and petitioning are usually not very effective

criticizes American policy of slavery, as well as its role in the Mexican-American War and its overly aggressive military practices; and concludes that the US fits the criteria of an unjust government

uses Henry’s own experiences as an example of how to deal with an unfair government; and points to his protest of slavery by refusing to pay taxes and spending a night in jail, which Henry believes was effective in dissociating himself from the government, and was an effective form of protest

Excerpts From “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even to most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.

The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.

Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

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.

Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed upon, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage.

There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.

Henry’s Other Writings and Legacy

Henry’s longtime journal was the source for most of his published work, including the aforementioned Walden (1854), and his first book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).

Strangely enough, those were his only two books that were published during his lifetime, and both were out of print when he died in 1862. It wasn’t until decades later that Henry became regarded as one of among the most notable thinkers and writers in American history.

Henry lived out his final years knowing he had tuberculosis. He spent much of his time preparing his journals and manuscripts that ended up being published after his death, including Excursions (1863), The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), and A Yankee in Canada (1866).

A complete collaboration of his writings, including his journals, was published in 20 volumes in 1906, and contains (among others things) a great deal of outstanding poetry and prose.

Other Activities

Henry was also a naturalist, and was among the first American ecologists and conservationists. Additionally, he was a major proponent against slavery, and is noted for his effort and writings in defense of white abolitionist John Brown.

More Henry David Thoreau Quotes

…All Nature is doing her best each moment to make us well. She exists for no other end. Do not resist her. Would you be well? See that you are attuned to each mood of Nature.

The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked what I thought, and attended to my answer.

As for conforming outwardly and living your own life inwardly, I do not think much of that.

We are constantly invited to be who we are.

Men are born to succeed, not to fail.

Knowledge does not come to us in details, but in flashes of light from heaven

Thought is the sculptor who can create the person you want to be.

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

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

Our life is frittered away by detail.

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?

Don’t be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so.

To have done anything just for money is to have been truly idle

Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.

A Collection of Wisdom