Walden

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Simplicity Over "Progress" Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Self-Reliance Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
Simplicity Over "Progress" Theme Icon
Solitude and Society Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
Transcendentalism, Spirituality, and the Good Life Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Walden, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Simplicity Over "Progress" Theme Icon

Thoreau believes that the best life is the simplest life. He rails against the luxuries that most men find so important, believing that they complicate their lives, and he criticizes the pretensions of his society, which spends so much time and energy pursuing an artificial and overblown notion of "progress." He suggests that material advancements trick people into thinking that their lives are improving or are better than their ancestors, but in reality such value placed on material things burdens them financially, binds them to their land, makes them work for their animals rather than makes their animals work for them, and leaves them exhausted and spiritually empty.

Instead, Thoreau argues for a separation between material wealth and spiritual growth, engaging in what he calls "voluntary poverty," which is how believes the wisest people in history have lived. He seeks to discern the "necessities of life," the barest conditions under which he can thrive, and then to live that lifestyle. For food, he subsists mostly on rice and rye meal, he makes bread whose only ingredient is flour, and he advocates for vegetarianism, which lets him avoid the trouble of catching animals and the moral dubiousness of killing them. He keeps meticulous financial records and finds that he can build his house, which he can live in forever, for as much money as a townsman rents his home for a year. For clothing, he has only the fewest and most utilitarian garments. Thoreau sees this kind of living as purifying, leaving him time to pursue his true work and leaving his mind free.

Simplicity Over "Progress" ThemeTracker

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Simplicity Over "Progress" Quotes in Walden

Below you will find the important quotes in Walden related to the theme of Simplicity Over "Progress".
Economy Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau explains the source of the book: the "year and two months" he spent alone in the woods, self-reliant and self-sufficient. However, he also makes it clear that everything he experienced, which now finds its way into the book, was not a long-term lifestyle but rather a kind of experiment. Now, finding himself back in civilized society, Thoreau is able to reflect on what he experienced in that time alone and communicate that to other people by publishing his book. 

Already, Thoreau lays out the most important aspects of his time in the wilderness. He was alone, separate from society (even if a mile isn't exactly "far"), he lived amidst nature, and obtained what he needed through the work of his own hands. For the rest of the book, Thoreau will return to each of these aspects of his time in the woods, detailing exactly what they entailed and what he learned from them. But even at the beginning, we can recognize that Thoreau isn't necessarily telling everyone to leave society or abandon civilization: the fact that he has returned himself suggests that his book will be a sort of guide, attained through extreme measures but accessible to anyone.

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The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau meditates on the unhappiness shown by so many people, he begins to ask himself why this should be the case. In this famous quote, Thoreau suggests that there is a profound disconnect between how people assume they should act and live, and the resulting emotions they feel while aligning with these expectations. In general, Thoreau is arguing, people don't question how they should live. They assume that what others have told them and what received wisdom dictates are not to be challenged. And they assume that they have no choice in the matter: that there's no way they can choose their own way to live, rather than succumbing to eternal stasis in which their desperation never stirs them to action. 

The rest of Thoreau's book will propose means of countering such desperation, whether through work, simplicity, or independence. But this passage also points to the profound, even spiritual direction of Thoreau's thought. He's not simply going into nature because it will be an interesting experience or because he wants to test himself: he is deeply invested in questions of what it means to live well, of how it might be possible to live a meaningful life.

With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Even as Thoreau entreats his readers to learn to think for themselves, as opposed to following the received wisdom handed down over generations, he himself does use the past as a guide in order to explain his own motivations for the kind of life he has chosen to live. Examples of wise people through the centuries have convinced Thoreau that material luxuries do not at all equate with spiritual advancement. Indeed, the opposite is the case: the more material comforts one has, the less likely one is to attain intellectual or spiritual wisdom.

Thoreau thus critiques an economic and social system in which progress is tied to ever greater material advancements, suggesting that this has nothing to do with wisdom or with the "good life." Of course, he is also clear that the "simple and meagre life" he experienced in his time alone must be actively chosen, not suffered out of necessity or poverty, for it to be meaningful.

The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bean-Field
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Near his small cabin the woods, Thoreau has planted a small bean-field, and is pleasantly surprised by how fruitful it becomes over the year of harvest. He contrasts this simple, basic farming with the Concord farmers, who – out of greed, he says, but also perhaps just out of custom – use complex methods and a number of different animals to draw greater wealth out of the soil. As a result, he says, they have set up a complicated system of farming that is so expensive that they are forced to always try to extract more value out of their land through even more extensive and complicated methods of farming. In other words, they are stuck in a vicious cycle, rather than being able to live self-sufficiently off of the land.

Once again, Thoreau makes the case that what often passes, in society, for progress and advancement is actually a hindrance to living well, and living a good life. Work is important to him, but the kind of work he promotes is individual and simple rather than extravagant or elaborate. 

While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau continues his meditation on what is really necessary for people to live, he turns to the critique of extravagant homes, a sign of "progress" that to him is really a sign of decadence and waste. Thoreau underlines his skepticism regarding the way people usually talk about progress by drawing a distinction between improved materials and methods for building houses, and the moral weakness of the people that inhabit them – a weakness that certainly has not gone away over time.

Just as he promotes concentrating on the person wearing the clothes, rather than on the clothing itself, here he distinguishes the fancy homes from those who live in them – people who may be technically noblemen and kings, but whose moral development is undeserving of any such label. Through this rhetorically powerful argument, Thoreau calls for a greater simplicity in shelter, one that will give people the chance to think about other things that really matter, rather than on external, superficial signs of social difference.

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau is, here, critiquing the Cambridge College students, who are eager to learn about things that have little basis in real life, and who lack any practical knowledge while they fill their head with such "distractions." In general, he says, our society is always focused on the next invention, always able to marvel at the newest innovation and to proclaim the way of progress in every achievement. Thoreau asks whether any of these things actually does represent "progress," or rather, whether they are all childish, distracting means of drawing us away from the important questions.

In some ways, Thoreau's stance might seem anti-intellectual, focused as it is on the "practical" knowledge that he thinks most important to lead a good life. In fact, Thoreau is deeply invested in abstract knowledge, and reading will be an important part of his time at Walden Pond. What he is critiquing instead is the endless, unthinking pursuit of "progress" that fails to step back and ask what the true, human purpose of it all is – a kind of critical thinking that should, in fact, characterize a place like a university.

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For Quotes

We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia's Chair, far from noise and disturbance. I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has characterized his time at Walden Pond as a retreat into solitude and from society – a potentially awkward claim, given that he's only a mile away from town, and that many people do in fact come to visit him. However, Thoreau is perfectly aware of this, and for him it doesn't represent a contradiction. Instead, he wants to suggest that one doesn't need to go far away in order to reach a "new and unprofaned" part of the universe.

Such spaces of solitude, he suggests, are actually all around us, even close to the places that we think of as humdrum normal life. Thoreau has cautioned before against romanticizing or assigning special value to foreign realms or distant places: for him, simplicity also applies to travel, such that people should concentrate on the opportunities for solitude and moral questioning that are around them, rather than searching for such things far and wide.

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.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

In this statement, Thoreau for the first time lays out clearly and succinctly his motivations in going to live at Walden Pond for a time. Part of these motivations are negative in nature: they involve cutting out and cutting back, removing himself from the hectic rush of society in order to have time for himself, time to think. By getting rid of the duties and obligations of daily life, of the distractions of society, Thoreau hopes to pare down his life until he can grasp what is "essential" about life in general, through a more simply way of living. 

However, this process of paring down is ultimately meant to add something new: to replace the inessential with the essential, and to learn from nature what cannot be learned in society. Thoreau returns to the definition of life that he has just developed, in which life only counts as such if it is experienced alertly and in a state of wakefulness. Only by experiencing the world around him in such a way, Thoreau believes, can he hope to have really lived. The stakes, then, could not be higher, as it is the meaning of life itself that Thoreau goes in search of in the woods.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau continues to describe his motivations for going out into the woods, he strongly critiques the prevailing ideas of society. Thoreau is impatient with the highly complex workings of society, which people have come to believe are absolutely necessary and, indeed, indicative of human beings' important standing in the world. In fact, we don't need most of what we think we need, Thoreau says. Indeed, we become so obsessed with the complicated details of daily life that we don't even really know what it means to live.

Only by distancing ourselves from the requirements of society, however, can it become clear that simplicity is to be embraced. It may be easy to revert to the most basic needs of daily life in the woods, but Thoreau is aware of how difficult it is in society to insist on simplicity. That is why he repeats the word here with such urgency, in an attempt to break through to the reader about the importance of this idea.

Reading Quotes

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Thoreau has been critical, earlier, about the useless knowledge often learned at school, this doesn't mean that he is against learning at all – to the contrary, he believes the knowledge contained in books to be one of society's greatest gifts. However, he believes that another problem with social life as so many people live it, is that its distractions draw people away from the crucial knowledge of literature and history, as we focus on conversations with other people and on the material possessions we covet. 

Similarly, while Thoreau has critiqued most people's view of "progress," he doesn't think society hasn't progressed at all – for him, society's greatest achievements are held within the pages of books. He believes, though, that too many people mistakenly think of progress as the hectic social activity of daily life, and not as the careful, reasoned arguments to be found by reading. The fast pace of everyday life makes it difficult to have time or attention for reading: therefore, once again, removing himself into nature gave him the opportunity to wrestle with the most difficult, but also most rewarding, ideas to be found in books.

Visitors Quotes

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

As is often the case in Walden, Thoreau modifies his previous arguments – or at least modifies the way we might interpret them – as he adds further layers to his exploration of living in the wilderness. Although he embraced solitude, this did not mean that Thoreau was entirely cut off from society. Many people, indeed, have criticized Walden for embracing a solitary lifestyle far from civilization, when in fact Thoreau was only a mile from town and regularly hosted visitors.

Here, however, Thoreau himself sees no contradiction between insisting on solitude and welcoming company. Instead, he suggests that even "society" should ideally abide by the rules of simplicity that he has set for himself alone. Simply drawing up chairs, and hosting people with kindness rather than preparing elaborate meals, for instance, can be a way to reconcile the demands of society with those of a simple life. By assigning a purpose to his three chairs, Thoreau implies that there is a time and a place for different kinds of social relations – and no need to abolish society entirely.

The Village Quotes

I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has recounted how he spent a night in jail when, as he made an excursion into town, a policeman found him and cited him for refusing to pay his taxes. In fact, Thoreau's refusal had a political basis, as part of his principled refusal of supporting the Mexican-American war and the expansion of the institution of slavery into the Southwest (he objected to both things, and felt that they were connected). Not paying his taxes also, however, is another way by which Thoreau distances himself from society and attempts to live on his own means, without the complex structures that dictate how most of us live. 

Here, Thoreau portrays the State as made up of people who are far more likely to "molest," that is, bother regular people. He is skeptical that the state is more helpful or necessary than not, and instead senses a need for individuals to find a way to give their lives meaning outside social and political structures.

Winter Animals Quotes

I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has already made clear that he doesn't miss the society of other people while he's in the woods, since for him nature provides companionship enough. Here he underlines the warm, inviting side of nature, which is so easily lost on those who live in society and who think of nature as something separate and apart.

In this quote, Thoreau takes great pleasure in how comfortable this sparrow obviously feels around him, since it dares even to rest on his shoulder. He implies that, even though he is participating in work meant for human purposes, there is a kind of unspoken communion between him and the bird. And for Thoreau, it is an utter privilege to be welcomed into the bird's world in such a way. Here he stresses once again how little he cares for the empty accolades of the social world, instead striving after simple companionship with nature, which he prizes all the more for being less valued in society's eyes.

Conclusion Quotes

Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought... It is easier to sail many thousand miles... than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau concludes his work, he returns to one of the motivations he set forth in writing: to serve as an example in describing all he did to try to figure out how one should live. With his journey concluded, Thoreau entreats his reader to embark on a journey of his or her own. However, he is not literally asking his reader to go out and travel the world – indeed, he has been open all along about the fact that he was hardly a mile from civilization all along himself. Instead, Thoreau uses the idea of travel as a metaphor to convince his readers to look inside themselves, to enact change within themselves – a journey just as long and arduous as any physical one.

Indeed, Thoreau acknowledges that it is more difficult to gain an understanding of oneself than to travel "many thousand miles," even if the latter is what modern technology strives after and believes to be a signal of progress and greatness. Thoreau, on the other hand, is convinced that it is through the simple life, and the careful attention to the world and oneself, through which one can fully understand him- or herself and thus better understand how to lead a good life. 

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.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau describes leaving Walden Pond, he continues to meditate on what he learned there – importantly, as part of what he calls an "experiment," rather than a new, rigidly programmatic lifestyle. Although he has been largely critical concerning the overpowering negative influence of society on modern people, here he embraces a more optimistic viewpoint. He urges his readers to pursue their own understanding of success, their own "dreams" rather than what society tells them to do. If they do so, they will not only achieve what they want – they will also learn to think of success differently, and become more in tune with the universal laws of nature and spirituality that actually have little to do with society's laws.

Once again, in addition, Thoreau makes a case for simplifying one's life in order to drown out the hectic, tempting voices of social "progress," voices that, he suggests, make what is important seem unimportant and vice versa. In general, Thoreau is less concerned here with asking his readers to follow his example of literally moving into the woods, than with explicitly suggesting conclusions and lessons that they can draw from his experience and apply in their own lives.

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

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Thoreau makes perhaps his most definitive statement about the values by which he wants to live – values that he has learned to embrace through his time in Walden Pond. "Money" and "fame" are, obviously, values that society holds up as important, and here as elsewhere in Walden, Thoreau battles against this assumption of what the good life means. But his injunction against "love" is more startling. Why might Thoreau dismiss love in favor of truth, or even see them as opposed? Perhaps because love can often complicate people's affairs, preventing the simplicity that Thoreau so embraced; perhaps, too, because love can make one reliant on another person. While we might not agree that this dependence is altogether a bad thing, it's important to understand Thoreau's position in light of his general insistence on self-reliance – and of his remarkable consistency in his views (though the fact that Thoreau remained a bachelor throughout his life might help to explain his position as well).

Instead of these values, which Thoreau considers as distracting and ultimately transient, he holds truth to be the one value worth pursuing, the one around which he wants to live. The good life, then, for Thoreau, is tied to what is true even more than it has to do with being kind to others – the true, for him, is the good.