Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau born July 12 1817, was an American writer, philosopher and naturalist, best known for his works ‘Walden’ and ‘Civil Disobedience’. Thoreau was a leading figure of the Transcendentalist movement which emphasised the importance of individualism, self reliance and the connection between nature and the human spirit.

Over time the Transcendentalists would have a strong impact on the American psyche; influencing writers such as Henry Miller, the Beat Generation and the Hippies. The group itself explored ideas found in German Romanticism, British Romanticism and Eastern Philosophy.

‘Walden’ reflects Thoreau’s two years spent living semi isolated in Walden pond. Thoreau built a humble cabin on the property owned by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, the materials of which would cost less than $1,000 accounting for inflation. Thoreau would spend the next two years documenting his time, thoughts and ideas living a semi isolated, self subsistent and minimalist lifestyle.

“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…” -Thoreau, 1854

This quote is why I found Walden so valuable. Who in the modern world hasn’t had a feeling that the riptide of modern culture has not washed them out so far, they can no longer find shore. So many of us live lives of inertia greased up by the spirit of modern life. When you feel like you have taken one too many wrong turns and only realised you are lost now deep in the woods, the only sensible thing to do is build a cabin. Only very few have the luxury to live in a cabin for two years in order to assess their life path, although ‘Walden’ teaches us that we can find our equivalent. It is up to us to figure out what this may look like; a change in career or extended travel perhaps? At the very least ‘Walden’ consoles us that we are not alone in this sentiment.

Thoreau’s writing can feel tedious and preachy at times but ‘Walden’ contains nuggets of gold for those willing to sift through tough soil.. Some of his philosophical musings written in the 1800s feel more relevant today than ever. This book is a powerful criticism of modern society’s addiction to material goods which require more and more work to acquire, leading to a lack of time for one’s own pursuits.

‘Walden’ challenges the reader to assess one’s actions, their place in society and to live more deliberately in general. Ultimately if you read ‘Walden’ and feel you don’t learn much, it can feel comforting that a weirdo in the 1800s had similar conclusions to yourself.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” – Henry David Thoreau 

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