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."
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
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:
- If Thoreau were alive today, how would he answer the question, "Which is more powerful, love or hate "?
- In a historical context, what would Thoreau think was the greatest
challenge facing humankind during his lifetime?
- 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
- 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:
BUILD YOUR OWN MODEL OF THOREAU'S CABIN ON
THOREAU TEACHING RESOURCES ONLINE
TO LEARN ABOUT OUR OTHER "PHILOSOPHERS OF THE WEEK" CLICK ON ONE OF THE LINKS BELOW.