Happy birthday, Henry David Thoreau. 200 years old today (1817-1862). Quotes & thoughts

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry Thoreau was many things: an essayist, poet, practical philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor and historian. Those were days when there was still room to do many different things, rather than the intense specialism that is common today. But perhaps most famously, he was author of the book Walden; or, Life in the Woods, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings.

Walden Pond, MASS, USA

Henry was born and brought up in Massachusetts, on the East Coast of the United States, along with his three siblings, John, Helen and Sophia. His father ran a pencil factory and his mother rented out parts of the home to boarders. Henry Thoreau eventually went to Harvard University to study Greek, Latin and German. I have no source for this, but it is said that Thoreau refused to pay the US $5 fee for a Harvard Master’s degree. It was offered to graduates ‘who proved their physical worth by being alive three years after graduating, and .. by having five dollars to give the college.’ Not dissimilar to procedure for obtaining an Oxbridge (UK) Masters today (or am I out of date on this?).

John Thoreau (older brother) died in Henry’s arms – the death left the younger brother with depression and nightmares for years. And likely, many nostalgic memories of times spent staying and playing together in the woods of rural Massachusetts.

Hut of writer and thinking, Henry David Thoreau

Possibly one of the most important things to happen in Thoreau’s life was his meeting with Ralph Waldo Emerson, a neighbour. Emerson introduced Henry to transcendentalism (a philosophical movement) and encouraged him to write. In time this lead to Thoreau living quietly and simply, for two years, in a hut on land owned by Emerson. The resulting book, Walden, eventually became a classic, and Thoreau a posthumous American hero.

At this point I’ll gratuitously mention that I worked (very briefly) in one of Harvard University’s libraries and have travelled a little around Massachusetts. I also had ten years of a “free range” education. Perhaps as a result of this I’ve always had an affinity with some of Thoreau’s ideas. “Simplify, simplify”, Thoreau urged in his little book – easy to say, but more difficult to achieve. I don’t always agree with Thoreau’s thoughts, and some I agree with but fall short on – but most are worth hearing and chewing over. He is remembered today because he still has relevant things to say to most of us.

Here are 14 of my favourite Thoreau quotes:

14. Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

13. “Dreams are the touchstones of our characters.”

12. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation”.

11. “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”

10. “Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”

9. “The greater part of what my neighbours call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behaviour. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”

8. “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”

7. “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

6. “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 he hears, however measured or far away.”

5. “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

4. “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

3. “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

2. “Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”

1. “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.

Have you any favourite Thoreau quotes or thoughts about the man/his life?

[P.S I have anglicised the spellings, in this case probably a mistake, force of habit]

Graphic about Henry David Thoreau

BELOW: Thoreau’s reflections on Walden Pond (Youtube, 5m 52 secs)

BELOW: Thoreau’s simple life at Walden (Youtube, 4m 48 secs)

BELOW: Henry David Thoreau on Pinterest (via The Long Victorian)












7 thoughts on “Happy birthday, Henry David Thoreau. 200 years old today (1817-1862). Quotes & thoughts

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    1. Interesting – I’m not sure. There is a “hipster/designer” minimalism popular at present, but then there are people who have taken it more seriously. Here is a good passage from Walden:

      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 be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.


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