Select Quotes from
Or Life In The Woods
by Henry David Thoreau
First published 1854 at age 37
May 22, 2000
The following quotes highlight several themes of the simplistic lifestyle.
Labor and Leisure
The Necessities of Life
Building a House
Expectation of Each Day
Simplicity and Reality
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 [age 28-30]. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. ...Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? ...How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot!
But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool's life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.
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. ...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.
It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.
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... . A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do... . How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties.
Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise
free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. ...Let
not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport. Enjoy the land, but own
it not. Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying
and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.
It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them... . For the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man's existence.
By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it. ...The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under the several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel; for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success.
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. ...There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. ...To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.
I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not;- but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them. ...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.
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.
As for Clothing, to come at once to the practical part of the question, perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility.
I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.
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.
Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously
As for a Shelter, I will not deny that this is now a necessary of life, though there are instances of men having done without it for long periods in colder countries than this.
However, if one designs to construct a dwelling-house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clue, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead.
In the savage state every family owns a shelter as good as the best, and sufficient for its coarser and simpler wants; but I think that I speak within bounds when I say that, though the birds of the air have their nests, and the foxes their holes, and the savages their wigwams, in modern civilized society not more than one half the families own a shelter. ...it is evident that the savage owns his shelter because it costs so little, while the civilized man hires his commonly because he cannot afford to own it. ...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. ... he must have spent more than half his life commonly before his wigwam will be earned. ...Would the savage have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?
I find that for the most part they have been toiling twenty, thirty, or forty years, that they may become the real owners of their farms... The man who has actually paid for his farm with labor on it is so rare that every neighbor can point to him. ...Bankruptcy and repudiation are the springboards from which much of our civilization vaults and turns its somersets, but the savage stands on the unelastic plank of famine.
The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. ...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.
And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.
The best works of art are the expression of man's struggle to free himself
from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low
state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten.
There is some of the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building its own nest. ...I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house.
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.
I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually.
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? ...As for the Pyramids,
there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many
men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a
tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier
to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.
My furniture... consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass three inches in diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp. ...Indeed, the more you have of such things the poorer you are. ...No wonder man has lost his elasticity. How often he is at a dead set!
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.
I kept... no yard! but unfenced nature reaching up to your very sills.
A young forest growing up under your meadows, and wild sumachs and blackberry
vines breaking through into your cellar; sturdy pitch pines rubbing and
creaking against the shingles for want of room, their roots reaching quite
under the house. ...Instead of no path to the front-yard gate in the Great
Snow- no gate- no front-yard- and no path to the civilized world.
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.
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.
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. ...It is something to be able to paint a particular
picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful;
but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and
medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect
the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is
tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation
of his most elevated and critical hour.
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 wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.
Our life is frittered away by detail. ...Simplify, simplify.
When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime.
Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake.
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 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. 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. 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.
Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society. ...Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.
I delight to come to my bearings- not walk in procession with pomp and
parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the