Philosopher of the Week. January 13th, 2003.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Concord, Massachusetts, United States

Henry David Thoreau grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, and attended Harvard College. After his graduation in 1837, he returned to Concord, where he taught school, lectured, served as a surveyor, worked as Ralph Waldo Emerson's handyman, and wrote and edited The Dial, a magazine written by a group of philosophers and writers called transcendentalists.

Thoreau and the transcendentalists believed that there was more to reality than what a person could experience with their senses and more knowledge than what a person could discover through human reason. They encouraged self-examination, individualism, and exploration of the beauty nature and humankind. "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." (from "Economy" in Walden) They saw a connection between the universe and the individual. Fulfillment of human potential was achieved by observation and awareness of the beauty and truth of the surrounding natural world. "Perfect sincerity and transparency make a great part of beauty, as in dewdrops, lakes, and diamonds." (Journal)

In order to live out his beliefs and to allow himself to be in nature, Thoreau built himself a cabin near Walden Pond, where he lived from 1845-1847. He wrote Walden about his experiences and reasons for choosing to live apart from society. A summary of his reasons can be found in one of the most quoted section of Walden:

"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, to 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 practice 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; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion." He found the key to success in life during his adventure at Walden Pond. "I have 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." (Walden) Thoreau's most famous essay, "Civil Disobedience" was written to explain his reason for spending a night in jail rather than support the Mexican War (1846-1848) by paying his poll tax. This essay describes the use of passive resistance, a philosophy later adopted by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau advises all dreamers, with true transcendental philosophy, "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them."

Other Thoreau advice/quotes:

• The world is but a canvas to the imagination.
• The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
• Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.
• It is never too late to give up your prejudices.
• Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.
• Things do not change; we change.
• Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.

Classroom Discussion Questions:

How would Henry David Thoreau answer the question what is the meaning of life?

How would Thoreau define good and evil? What makes a person good? Evil?

Why did Thoreau have to live away from society to learn about himself?

Thoreau believed that "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" was very important to life. How does that idea make him a transcendentalist?

Thoreau went to jail to protest the Mexican War. Why do you think Thoreau was against the war in Mexico? (Find the answer by researching Thoreau in the encyclopedia or on the Internet)

Choose a quote from Thoreau. Explain what you think it means. How does it fit into transcendentalism? What does it tell you about your life?

To learn more about Henry David Thoreau and the transcendentalists, follow these links:




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