exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity
How To Sit Quietly
In A Room Alone
Thoreau’s Walden Pond as
“Quiet Room” of Transformation
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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.
Henry David Thoreau
Every human being, without exception, making one’s way through the initial stages of enlightenment, will begin to sense a certain antipathy with the ways of this materialistic world.
The distance will become palpable. The old allurements are now perceived as vulgarities, a dehumanizing sleep-walking. And there will be a rising up, from an uncharted center, of desire for authentic living.
This process of inner awakening, the soul coming of age, is presented to us in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. His two year, two month seclusion in a modest cabin with pond became, for the Concord sage, a veritable small-and-quiet room of transformation.
Editor’s note: I’ve provided excerpts from Walden which, in my opinion, feature Thoreau’s growing perspicacity and sensitivity toward life and living.
the misfortune of having inherited a farm; soon it will own you
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. Better if they had been
born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have
seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who
made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres,
when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they
begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got
to live a man's life, pushing all these things before them, and get
on as well as they can. 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! The portionless, who
struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it
labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.
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.
what a man thinks of himself indicates his fate
How godlike, how immortal, is he? See how he cowers
and sneaks, how vaguely all the day he fears, not being immortal nor
divine, but the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, a
fame won by his own deeds. 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.
Self-emancipation even in the West Indian provinces of the fancy and
imagination -- what Wilberforce is there to bring that about?
Think, also, of the ladies of the land weaving toilet cushions
against the last day, not to betray too green an interest in their
fates! As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
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, and have to console yourself with the
bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious
despair is concealed even under what are called the games and
amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes
after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do
they think they have no choice
Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up
our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can
be trusted without proof.
what my neighbors call good, I believe to be bad
The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my
soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be
my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?
You may say the wisest thing you can, old man -- you who have lived
seventy years, not without honor of a kind -- I hear an irresistible
voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons
the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.
All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant. Confucius said, "To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge."
With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.
there are professors of philosophy but almost none are philosophers, "lovers of wisdom"; they know about but do not know
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not
philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once
admirable to live. 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. It is to solve some of the problems of
life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great
scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not
kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity,
practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a noble race of men.
No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a
patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety,
commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched
clothes, than to have a sound conscience.
I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart, with a free
circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion
train and breathe a malaria all the way.
Who bolsters you? Are you one of the ninety-seven
who fail, or the three who succeed? Answer me these questions, and
then perhaps I may look at your bawbles and find them ornamental.
The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful. Before
we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be
stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping
and beautiful living be laid for a foundation: now, a taste for the
beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house
and no housekeeper.
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to
the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my
house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in
their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.
I began to occupy my house on the 4th of July, as soon as it was boarded and roofed, for the boards were carefully feather-edged and lapped, so that it was perfectly impervious to rain, but before boarding I laid the foundation of a chimney at one end, bringing two cartloads of stones up the hill from the pond in my arms. I built the chimney after my hoeing in the fall, before a fire became necessary for warmth, doing my
cooking in the meanwhile out of doors on the ground, early in the
morning: which mode I still think is in some respects more
convenient and agreeable than the usual one. When it stormed before
my bread was baked, I fixed a few boards over the fire, and sat
under them to watch my loaf, and passed some pleasant hours in that
way. In those days, when my hands were much employed, I read but
little, but the least scraps of paper which lay on the ground, my
holder, or tablecloth, afforded me as much entertainment, in fact
answered the same purpose as the Iliad.
The most interesting dwellings in this country, as the
painter knows, are the most unpretending, humble log huts and
cottages of the poor commonly; it is the life of the inhabitants
whose shells they are, and not any peculiarity in their surfaces
merely, which makes them picturesque; and equally interesting will
be the citizen's suburban box, when his life shall be as simple and
as agreeable to the imagination, and there is as little straining
after effect in the style of his dwelling.
The religion and civilization which are barbaric and heathenish build splendid temples... Most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It buries itself alive. 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. I might possibly invent some excuse for them and him, but I have no time for it. As for the religion and love of art of the builders, it is much the same all
the world over, whether the building be an Egyptian temple or the
United States Bank. It costs more than it comes to. The mainspring
each should pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's
One young man of my acquaintance, who has inherited some acres,
told me that he thought he should live as I did, if he had the
means. I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any
account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have
found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many
different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each
one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his
father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead.
There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness
tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a
certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious
design of doing me good, I should run for my life…
Editor's note: Concerning this "goodness tainted," the cloaked designs of avarice, see excerpts of Adrian Smith's essay "The Mask of Piety" on the "Authority" page.
Be sure that you give the poor the aid they most need, though it
be your example which leaves them far behind. If you give money,
spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them. We
make curious mistakes sometimes. Often the poor man is not so cold
and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his
taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he
will perhaps buy more rags with it.
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of
evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who
bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing
the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives
in vain to relieve.
a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can
afford to let alone.
The nearest that I came to actual possession was when I bought the Hollowell place, and had begun to sort my seeds, and collected materials with which to make a wheelbarrow to carry it on or off with; but before the owner gave me a deed of it, his wife -- every man has such a wife -- changed her mind and wished to keep it, and he offered me ten dollars to release him. Now, to speak the truth, I had but ten cents in the world, and it surpassed my arithmetic to tell, if I was that man who had ten
cents, or who had a farm, or ten dollars, or all together. However,
I let him keep the ten dollars and the farm too, for I had carried
it far enough; or rather, to be generous, I sold him the farm for
just what I gave for it, and, as he was not a rich man, made him a
present of ten dollars, and still had my ten cents, and seeds, and
materials for a wheelbarrow left.
When first I took up my abode in the woods, that is, began to
spend my nights as well as days there, which, by accident, was on
Independence Day, or the Fourth of July, 1845, my house was not
finished for winter, but was merely a defence against the rain,
without plastering or chimney, the walls being of rough,
weather-stained boards, with wide chinks, which made it cool at
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal
simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. I have
been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up
early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one
of the best things which I did. They say that characters were
engraven on the bathing tub of King Tchingthang to this effect:
"Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and
forever again." I can understand that. Morning brings back the
heroic ages. I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito
making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at
earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I
could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame.
The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius
The Vedas say, "All intelligences awake with the morning." Poetry and
art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date
from such an hour… Morning is when I am awake and there
is a dawn in me.
how few are awake to the divine life
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but
only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual
exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life.
To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was
quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
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. I know of no more
encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate
his life by a conscious endeavor. 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.
I wish to live deliberately
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, and, if it
proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of
it, and publish its meanness to the world
simplicity, simplicity, simplicity
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need
to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add
his ten toes, and lump the rest. 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. In the midst of this
chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and
quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man
has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not
make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great
calculator indeed who succeeds.
Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion. Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external
and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown
establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own
traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation
and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the
only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and
more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It
lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have
commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride
thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but
whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little
If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and
devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our
lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads
are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay
at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not
ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are
determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a
stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches
today to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven't any of any
consequence. We have the Saint Vitus' dance, and cannot possibly
keep our heads still.
For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think
that there are very few important communications made through it.
To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters
in my life -- I wrote this some years ago -- that were worth the
postage. The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which
you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so
often safely offered in jest. And I am sure that I never read any
memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or
murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel
wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the
Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers
in the winter -- we never need read of another.
I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this
mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the
surface of things. We think that that is which appears to be.
spend one day as deliberately as Nature
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. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast,
gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company
go, let the bells ring and the children cry -- determined to make a
day of it… If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like.
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…
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but
while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.
Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink
deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I
cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I
have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was
born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way
into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with
my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all
my best faculties concentrated in it.
With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits,
all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for
certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In
accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a
family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in
dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor
books are the treasured wealth of the world, authors a natural and irresistible aristocracy
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and
irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or
emperors, exert an influence on mankind.
Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the
language in which they were written must have a very imperfect
knowledge of the history of the human race … for later writers, say
what we will of their genius, have rarely, if ever, equalled the
elaborate beauty and finish and the lifelong and heroic literary
labors of the ancients. They only talk of forgetting them who never
knew them. It will be soon enough to forget them when we have the
learning and the genius which will enable us to attend to and
appreciate them. That age will be rich indeed when those relics
which we call Classics, and the still older and more than classic
but even less known Scriptures of the nations, shall have still
further accumulated, when the Vaticans shall be filled with Vedas
and Zendavestas and Bibles, with Homers and Dantes and Shakespeares, and all the centuries to come shall have successively deposited their trophies in the forum of the world. By such a pile we may hope to scale heaven at last.
only a poet can read poetry
The works of the great poets have never yet been read by
mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been
read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not
astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry
convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep
accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble
intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is
reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and
suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to
stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours
I think that having learned our letters we should read the best
that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and
words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on
the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied
if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the
wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives
vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy
The best books are not read even by those who are called good
readers. What does our Concord culture amount to? There is in this
town, with a very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very
good books even in English literature, whose words all can read and
spell. Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men
here and elsewhere have really little or no acquaintance with the
English classics; and as for the recorded wisdom of mankind, the
ancient classics and Bibles, which are accessible to all who will
know of them, there are the feeblest efforts anywhere made to become
acquainted with them.
who, if he has mastered the difficulties of the language, has proportionally mastered the difficulties of the wit and poetry of a Greek poet, and has any sympathy to impart to the alert and heroic reader; and as for the sacred Scriptures, or Bibles of mankind, who in this town
can tell me even their titles? Most men do not know that any nation
but the Hebrews have had a scripture. A man, any man, will go
considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are
golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and
whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of; --
and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers
and class-books, and when we leave school, the "Little Reading," and
story-books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our
conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only
of pygmies and manikins.
We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.
marking the days of your life by the discovery of a great book
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life.
It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants
the fellows of universities, with leisure -- if they are, indeed, so
well off -- to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives.
Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever?
Cannot students be boarded here and get a liberal education under
the skies of Concord? Can we not hire some Abelard to lecture to
us? Alas! what with foddering the cattle and tending the store, we
are kept from school too long, and our education is sadly neglected.
In this country, the village should in some respects take the place
of the nobleman of Europe. It should be the patron of the fine
arts. It is rich enough. It wants only the magnanimity and
refinement. It can spend money enough on such things as farmers and
traders value, but it is thought Utopian to propose spending money
for things which more intelligent men know to be of far more worth.
This town has spent seventeen thousand dollars on a town-house,
thank fortune or politics, but probably it will not spend so much on
living wit, the true meat to put into that shell, in a hundred
New England can hire all the wise men in the world to come and teach her, and board them round the while, and not be provincial at all. That is
the uncommon school we want. Instead of noblemen, let us have noble
villages of men. If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the
river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the
darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us.
What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry,
no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most
admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking
always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student
merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk
on into futurity.
I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I
often did better than this.
Editor' note: In this section and the next, Thoreau speaks of his experience of going within, accessing the present moment, a timeless reverie of living in "the true self." In his own words, in his own "room of transformation," he refers to a mystical phenomenon of awakening, which we often discuss here on Word Gems.
There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.
I grew like corn in the night
I grew in those seasons like corn inthe night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune. As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had
I my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my
What time is it? well, the time is ‘now’ - what other time would it be?
My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any
heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the
ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is
said that "for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one
word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward
for yesterday forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing
day." This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but
if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should
not have been found wanting. A man must find his occasions in
himself, it is true. The natural day is very calm, and will hardly
reprove his indolence.
my own life was my joy and amusement
I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those
who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the
theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never
ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without an
end. If we were always, indeed, getting our living, and regulating
our lives according to the last and best mode we had learned, we
should never be troubled with ennui. Follow your genius closely
enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every
hour. Housework was a pleasant pastime. When my floor was dirty, I
rose early, and, setting all my furniture out of doors on the grass,
bed and bedstead making but one budget, dashed water on the floor,
and sprinkled white sand from the pond on it, and then with a broom
scrubbed it clean and white; and by the time the villagers had
broken their fast the morning sun had dried my house sufficiently to
allow me to move in again, and my meditations were almost
uninterupted. It was pleasant to see my whole household effects out
on the grass, making a little pile like a gypsy's pack, and my
three-legged table, from which I did not remove the books and pen
and ink, standing amid the pines and hickories. They seemed glad to
get out themselves, and as if unwilling to be brought in. I was
sometimes tempted to stretch an awning over them and take my seat
there. It was worth the while to see the sun shine on these things,
and hear the free wind blow on them; so much more interesting most
familiar objects look out of doors than in the house. A bird sits
on the next bough, life-everlasting grows under the table, and
blackberry vines run round its legs; pine cones, chestnut burs, and
strawberry leaves are strewn about. It looked as if this was the
way these forms came to be transferred to our furniture, to tables,
chairs, and bedsteads -- because they once stood in their midst.
I confess, that practically speaking, when I have learned a man's real
disposition, I have no hopes of changing it for the better or worse
in this state of existence.
Editor's note: Thoreau came to see, as many wise have also understood, that man's dark side is not to be expunged but to be transcended. This is so because lessons learned with "the ego" become our sourse of great wisdom.
This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense,
and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a
strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the
stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as
well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me,
all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump
to usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne
on the rippling wind from over the water.
feeling a oneness and kinship with Nature
Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled. These small waves raised by the evening wind are as remote from storm as the
smooth reflecting surface. Though it is now dark, the wind still
blows and roars in the wood, the waves still dash, and some
creatures lull the rest with their notes. The repose is never
complete. The wildest animals do not repose, but seek their prey
now; the fox, and skunk, and rabbit, now roam the fields and woods
without fear. They are Nature's watchmen -- links which connect the
days of animated life.
Men frequently say to me, "I should think you would feel lonesome down
there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and
nights especially." I am tempted to reply to such -- This whole
earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart,
think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star,
the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments?
Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This
which you put seems to me not to be the most important question.
What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows
and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs
can bring two minds much nearer to one another. What do we want
most to dwell near to? Not to many men surely, the depot, the
post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house, the school-house, the
grocery, Beacon Hill, or the Five Points, where men most congregate,
but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our
experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near
the water and sends out its roots in that direction. This will vary
with different natures, but this is the place where a wise man will
dig his cellar....
Any prospect of awakening or coming to life to a dead man makes
indifferent all times and places. The place where that may occur is
always the same, and indescribably pleasant to all our senses. For
the most part we allow only outlying and transient circumstances to
make our occasions. They are, in fact, the cause of our
We are the subjects of an experiment which is not a little
interesting to me. Can we not do without the society of our gossips
a little while under these circumstances -- have our own thoughts to
cheer us? Confucius says truly, "Virtue does not remain as an
abandoned orphan; it must of necessity have neighbors."
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.
To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and
dissipating. I love to be alone. I 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 or working is always alone, let him be
where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that
intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent
student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as
solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work alone in
the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel
lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but
must be where he can "see the folks," and recreate, and, as he
thinks, remunerate himself for his day's solitude; and hence he
wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and
most of the day without ennui and "the blues"; but he does not
realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in
his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in
turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does,
though it may be a more condensed form of it.
Society is commonly too cheap. 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 open war.
We meet at the post-office, and at the sociable, and about the
fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other's way, and
stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect
for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all
important and hearty communications.
I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the
morning, when nobody calls. Let me suggest a few comparisons, that
some one may convey an idea of my situation. I am no more lonely
than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond
itself. What company has that lonely lake, I pray? And yet it has
not the blue devils, but the blue angels in it, in the azure tint of
its waters. The sun is alone, except in thick weather, when there
sometimes appear to be two, but one is a mock sun. God is alone --
but the devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of
company; he is legion. I am no more lonely than a single mullein or
dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly,
or a bumblebee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a
weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April
shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house.
I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough
to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded
man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might
possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my
business called me thither.
I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for
friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and
unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but
they generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprising
how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had
twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my
roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come
very near to one another.
Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry
was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and
heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large
crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony,
not excepting our cattle-shows and so-called Thanksgivings, by which
the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is
reminded of its sacred origin. It is the premium and the feast
which tempt him. He sacrifices not to Ceres and the Terrestrial
Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather. By avarice and
selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free,
of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring
property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded
with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature
but as a robber.
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 its nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain
health of its own; that we may be well, yet not pure.
(final words of the chapter)
Thus was my first year's life in the woods completed; and the
second year was similar to it. I finally left Walden September 6th,
The universe is wider than our views of it.
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps
it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not
spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and
insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track
for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a
path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six
years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.
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.
Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise
that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men
the different drummer
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 not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree
or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition
of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality
which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain
reality. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over
ourselves, though when it is done we shall be sure to gaze still at
the true ethereal heaven far above, as if the former were not?
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it
and call it hard names. It is not so 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.
The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as
brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its
door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live
as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.
Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. 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. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my
days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I
had my thoughts about me. The philosopher said: "From an army of
three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in
disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take
away his thought." Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to
subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all
dissipation. Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights.
The shadows of poverty and meanness gather around us, "and lo!
creation widens to our view." We are often reminded that if there
were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be
the same, and our means essentially the same.
Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money
is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.
We know not where we are. Beside, we are sound asleep
nearly half our time. Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an
established order on the surface. Truly, we are deep thinkers, we
are ambitious spirits! As I stand over the insect crawling amid the
pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavoring to conceal itself
from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble
thoughts, and bide its head from me who might, perhaps, be its
benefactor, and impart to its race some cheering information, I am
reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over
me the human insect.
There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet
we tolerate incredible dulness. I need only suggest what kind of
sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries.
The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this
year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched
uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out
all our muskrats. It was not always dry land where we dwell. I see
far inland the banks which the stream anciently washed, before
science began to record its freshets. Every one has heard the story
which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful
bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree
wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first
in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts -- from an egg
deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared
by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out
for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who
does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality
strengthened by hearing of this?
Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its
well-seasoned tomb -- heard perchance gnawing out now for years by
the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board --
may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and
handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!
I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but
such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can
never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness
to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more
day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
Henry David Thoreau has influenced a great many since those days on the pond; myself included.
As a freshman at university, more than 50 years ago, I still recall purchasing a copy of Walden in the campus bookstore. So moved was I by this wise man’s discourse on Nature, solitude, and independence, I seriously considered going back to the old farm. And this, in spite of all the ill-will and antipathy I’d earned for myself at home, given my disagreement with conventional ways. Mercifully, as this would have been a grave error, my father perceived more clearly than I and strongly cautioned against a return to the old life, admonishing that I was “made for something else.” Dispatching me thus, he sent me on my long journey.