A few weeks ago I finished reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I’m not at all sure how I made it through high school and college without ever reading this book; I think it should be required reading! Thoreau has a unique and interesting writing style. I knew he was a naturalist, but what I didn’t realize is that he was also a philosopher. I found the book to be extremely thought provoking, and it challenged me to examine my priorities and to put things into perspective. Truly, Walden is a manifesto. Thoreau describes in great detail his “experiment” of living apart from society in the area of Concord Massachusetts. He discusses the building of his cabin, and how much it costs, and tells all about his beans, and the wildlife in and around the pond, and about rare interactions with visitors. But, what the book is really all about is freedom.
Thoreau lived a minimalist lifestyle. Many would look at that as a lesser existence, but to Thoreau it meant that he was unencumbered. Instead of toiling away as a slave to get the next dollar, or thing, he was free to explore, to read, to contemplate.
I’m not going to give a full critique of the book. That’s been done countless times by people far more scholarly than me. I will, however, list some quotes I jotted down. In my humble opinion these quotes capture the essence of the book.
- For the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence; as our skeletons, probably, are not to be distinguished from those of our ancestors.
- … and 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.
- We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper.
- I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking of working is always alone, let him be where he will.
- We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to war.
- I respect not his labors, his farm where everything has its price, who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get anything for him; who goes to market for his god as it is; on whose farm nothing grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, who trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars. Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth.
- Our whole life is startingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.
- A voice said to him- Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these. –But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.
- A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.
- Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.
- In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. 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.
- Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring. Sometimes we are inclined to class those who are once-and-a-half-witted with the half-witted, because we appreciate only a third part of their wit.
- 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 life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.
- The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the “means” are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor.