What Henry David Thoreau Teaches Us About Simplicity In ‘Walden’

Henry David Thoreau was a central transcendentalist who sought the possibilities of simple living in tranquility. We examine his findings for valuable lessons.

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When one inquires about the most distinguished American philosophers, the name Henry David Thoreau often comes to the forefront of our minds. Born on July 12, 1817, the man who would go on be a major figure in American naturalism and transcendentalist writing was also referred to as an “anarchist” by his critics. Yet, Thoreau embraced these titles as he labored to bring awareness to what he believed were grave issues within both the US government and human society as a whole. However, most of all, the philosopher endeavored to explore the idea of a life unbound from the confines of modern civilization by depending only on the most essential needs at hand.

It was this desire to gain a better understanding of society through nature-inspired introspection that drove Henry Thoreau to take to the woods of Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847. During his two years residing in his modest cabin along the northern shore of the pond, Thoreau continued to write, producing his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. However, it was Thoreau’s experiences of survival without luxurious amenities and living with the bare minimum that inspired his most famous body of work, Walden.

As the nation marks the 161st anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s passing, we wish to direct our audience’s attention to the lessons and observations found within Walden and how their relevance continues to thrive in a rapid world saturated with over-stimulation and vanity.

Replica of Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond Cabin.

Focusing on the Present

When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only get and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.

Walden, Henry David Thoreau

We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.

Walden, Henry David Thoreau

During Thoreau’s two-year experiment with solitary living amidst the natural serenity of Walden Pond, he made use of the opportunity to cherish and capture every living moment beyond his cabin windows. Stripping away the burdens, obligations, and “petty fears and pleasures,” prevalent as they may be, grants the individual a chance to slow down and appreciate the seemingly most simple aspects of life. The message from Thoreau is clear. Don’t focus too much on your past mistakes or future adversities, or else you may lose sight of the present and the tranquility it brings. In a rapidly shifting world where our undivided attention is often demanded, perhaps we, too, could utilize such advice more often.

Finding Gratification in Modest Simplicity

No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.

Walden, Henry David Thoreau

In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex.

Walden, Henry David Thoreau

By now, everyone has heard of the age-old adage that money can’t buy happiness. Thoreau’s reiteration of this ancient proverbial wisdom isn’t a philosophical breakthrough. Yet, it seems despite this, many refuse to heed the advice. Choosing to take up residence in Walden Pond with only the most basic provisions, Thoreau embraced minimalism to the fullest extent of that word while remaining completely self-reliant. His experiences with managing his expenditures while focusing only on food, shelter, clothing, and fuel as his main supplies were all recorded in Walden, demonstrating to his readers that riches and ego were entirely non-essential for the human body and spirit to achieve fulfillment and true freedom.

Walden Pond Cabin Interior, Henry David Thoreau simple living space.

Seeking Truth and Knowledge

A man, any man, will go considerable 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.

Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Perhaps the most fundamental criterion for simple living lies in the pursuit of truth itself. After all, adhering to an objective set of principles and values creates little cause for chaos and disorder in one’s life, no? Thoreau understood the value of books and the knowledge they pass down from the sages of old. Real wealth and truth can be found in the pursuit of reading, a lesson that Walden‘s author greatly emphasizes. Casting aside vane and materialistic aspirations to pursue knowledge while leading a truthful life, what other joy could possibly be rivaled?

Valuable Insight Attained

Henry Thoreau left Walden Pond in 1847, having found a new perspective of society outside of its confines. The impact of this two-year adventure would only strengthen his resolve in seeking independence from what he believed was a corrupt government. Walden would go on to serve as a manual of sorts for achieving self-reliance within a simple life, one that was free from “over-civilization.”

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