The Henry David Thoreau legacy

Practically evey book I’ve read about simplicity owns up, at some point, to drawing inspiration from Henry David Thoreau, so it was only a matter of time before I got round to reading his main work – Walden, or Life in the woods.

Thoreau was a writer and naturalist, an abolitionist and a radical. He went to Harvard, invented a new kind of pencil, wrote poetry, researched native American traditions, travelled, and developed a philosophy that later inspired ecologists, anarchists, free thinkers and bohemians of all walks of life. Although he moved in some quite influential circles at times, he was uncompromising in his views – that people should ‘follow their genius’, refuse to let society dictate to them how and when they should work, how they should live, what they should own or aspire to. At one point his refusal to compromise landed him with a night in jail, as he refused point blank to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery and was fighting an unjust war against the Mexicans.

Thoreau is best known for his ‘experiment in living’, when he took himself out to the Massachusetts woods and lived in a cabin for two years. He aimed to prove just how simple it is to live if you value nature, reality, and simplicity. He built his house from scratch, planted crops, and lived very well, modelling contentment and working out for himself exactly what the real necessities of life are. ‘Walden’ is his conclusion to the experiment:

‘Many of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only dispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind… Man is rich in proportion to to the number of things he can do without.’

‘Superflous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.’

‘I am convinced, both by faith and by experience, that to maintain one’s self upon this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.’

‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’

‘Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate circumstances? 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.’

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