Walden by Henry David Thoreau is part autobiography, part philosophical treatise, and part nature field guide. He focuses on his decision to briefly disengage from society, and opts to leave the comforts of his home and to move in to the woods near Walden Pond (hence the title).
Powerful Wisdom for the Independent-Minded Man
This book was one of the most quotable (is that a word?) books I’ve ever read. There’s a ton of profound knowledge. I told myself to just stop quoting towards the end because there was just too much, but I disregarded that and am left with all these quotes I want to explore a bit more.
“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.”
How much are our possessions really worth? People work their asses off just so they can buy shit they don’t need. He points out the blatant hypocrisy in this cycle.
“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.”
Ignore the crowd, go your own way. Do what you do not because someone else is doing it, do it because you know it’s the best choice. Always trust your gut!
“Is it impossible to combine the hardiness of these savages with the intellectuallness of the civilized man?”
I don’t think Thoreau intended for this to be such a profound quote, but something about it struck me. I’ll be writing an entire article on this quote. I love the idea of balancing man’s rugged masculinity, with a refined gentleman fit for society.
“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”
“As with our colleges, so with a hundred “modern improvements”; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance.”
Absolutely true, and this was 160 years ago!
“…but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man.”
People tend to disregard the value of history. If someone does advocate for studying history it is often because they say, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” While this is true, our society and government nonetheless disregard mistakes from the past.
The value in history for me lies in learning how great men of the past lived their lives and how I can apply their lives to my own.
“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 feel the same way. Narcissictic? Damn right! It’s actually incredibly easy to be above average. It simply requires putting in a little more work. No one wants to be just above average though, we want to be great. I doubt that great men are born the way they are. In fact I know they aren’t. Hard work, wit, and patience will take any man to new heights.
“…I occasionally observed that he was thinking for himself and expressing his own opinion, a phenomenon so rare that I would any day walk ten miles to observe it, and it amounted to the re-origination of many of the institutions of society.”
Oh Thoreau… so cheeky. Sadly I would say his observation rings true. How many people are not only willing to stand up for what they believe, but to actually say it aloud at risk of being shunned? Very few…
“A walk through the woods thither was often my recreation. It was worth the while, if only to feel the wind blow on your cheek freely…”
I have no clue what people did for entertainment in the mid-19th century. Today, it’s not hard to list of a dozen things that people do in their free time. Usually being outside, let alone walking is not one of them.
Out in the Woods
Mankind was meant to be out in nature. Spending sometime outside, even if it’s just a brisk walk like Thoreau talks about can do wonders for the mind and body.
“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 ebriosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes.”
Well, I may have a problem with this one. I don’t think that he’s implying man must not indulge in any of these things, rather he is just pointing out that they are not as essential as people would make them out to be. In his time spent in the woods at Walden Pond, he lived without luxury so I can see where he is coming from. I don’t think a cup of coffee or tea will lead to the downfall of a civilization, but rather it’s the materialism and excessive wealth that will.
“We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change it nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own; that we may be well, yet not pure.”
“Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits by which succeed it. Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open.”
Chastity, about that…
“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, and meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.”
Treat your body well! This is a no-brainer. I love the stylistic writing here as well.
“Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of the 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.”
Manlets take note. I kid I kid… but seriously, maybe some of us aren’t where we are in life, and may never be, but does that mean we should just throw are arms in the air and give up? Fuck no… Be the best you can be.
“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not as 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.”
Take Your Time
There is A LOT of content to digest from this book, and most of that is concentrated into about a third of the book; that’s how dense it can be at times.
I’d highly recommend this book as there is a lot of eye opening ideas, especially considering as it was written in the 1850’s. I would especially recommend this to young guys as it will give you some perspective about the future.
You can find a free version of Walden in a variety of places–this is a solid one from Amazon.
Have you read Walden? What did you think? Let me know.