Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond embodies a philosophy set out most famously and directly in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, "Self-Reliance." In fact, Emerson was Thoreau’s friend and fellow Transcendentalist, and Emerson owned the land by the pond where he allowed Thoreau to live and build his cabin. Self-reliance is a set of ideals according to which one must live one’s life, combining abstract philosophy with practical advice. According to these ideals, one must have unfailing trust in oneself and confidence in one’s faculties, choosing individuality over conformity to society. By leaving society and living in solitude, Thoreau makes the ultimate commitment to self-reliance, in order to, as he says, "follow the bent of [his] genius." He stresses the importance of living independently, as he builds his own house and lives off his own land. When he does take a job, he works as a day laborer, which he says is the best living because it does not commit him to an employer and leaves him freest to pursue his own affairs.
He believes, moreover, that a student in a university receives a lesser education listening to lectures about metalwork, for example, than if he would teach himself and attempt to forge a knife on his own. Self-reliance is based on a critical stance toward society, which Thoreau believes forces people into making compromises that trap them and make them unhappy. Thoreau writes, for example, that people spend too much money and energy on clothing, following changing taste and fashions frantically. Self-reliance, instead, places value on one’s own worth and individuality: quoting others is not as important as listening to one’s own thoughts, and society’s restrictions matter little in the face of one’s own beliefs, even if one is unpredictable and inconsistent. As Emerson writes in "Self-Reliance", "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." This commitment to inconsistency is a moral stance, and Thoreau takes it seriously, creating a book that is full of contradiction as he figures out the way of life that is right for him individually.
Self-Reliance Quotes in Walden
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile away from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
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.
Objects of charity are not guests.
I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State.
My Good Genius seemed to say,—Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day,—farther and wider,—and rest thee by many brooks and hearth-sides without misgiving. Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures... Grow wild according to thy nature.
I 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. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him... and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.
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 which he hears, however measured or far away.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.