Walden

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Transcendentalism, Spirituality, and the Good Life 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.
Transcendentalism, Spirituality, and the Good Life Theme Icon

As a self-described Transcendentalist, Thoreau believes in the individual’s power to live an everyday life charged with meaning, and he has faith in self-reliance over societal institutions, focusing instead on the goodness of humankind and the profound lessons it can learn from nature. He values individuality, conviction, and focus as cardinal virtues. Eschewing organized religion, he opts to search on his own for what living a good life means, and he tries to live it as he searches. He crafts a life with a perpetual sense of striving towards something greater, such that all of his activities take on spiritual significance. Every morning he washes himself in Walden Pond and calls his bath a "religious experience," quoting Hindu scripture and writing that the pond is part of the sacred water of the Ganges River. Nature’s activities, for him, are sacred rites, and he pays them due attention, believing that the present moment is the culmination of the spiritual and is as divine as all time. Furthermore, he holds that true richness has nothing to do with material wealth but with a hunger for truth and beauty. In the end, Thoreau finds living by these principles to be an essential duty, a challenge that people have an obligation to match. Walden is Thoreau’s attempt to wake ordinary men from their sleep and call them to live better lives, more deliberate and more fulfilled.

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Transcendentalism, Spirituality, and the Good Life Quotes in Walden

Below you will find the important quotes in Walden related to the theme of Transcendentalism, Spirituality, and the Good Life.
Economy Quotes

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.

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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.

All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau begins his critique of society, he returns to humankind's basic needs of shelter, clothing, and fuel, and then he attempts to determine where people have gone awry in deforming or misunderstanding such needs beyond any recognition. For instance, he is suspicious of the obsession with clothes, when people really only need very basic clothing in order to survive. What clothing does, he argues, is to create social distinctions and thus erode the natural bonds that people share with each other.

This passage takes place in the context of Thoreau expressing suspicion about the societal norms requiring new clothes at certain times in life. Rather than donning new superficial costumes, he suggests that people should focus on changing their inner selves: on discovering and working on the person they want to be, rather than something they merely put on and take off. 

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.

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

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

As Thoreau enjoys the "spiritual exercise" that he attains from bathing in Walden Pond, and the heightened attention that he has towards nature and towards his own life as a result, his thoughts turn to those quietly desperate people he has referenced before, many of whom fail to embrace the wonder of daily life. Thoreau uses a metaphor of sleep and wakefulness, characterizing most people as never fully awake, even while they are going about their daily lives. Since to be awake is to be alive, most people, he argues, are not fully alive even for most of the time they live. 

By modifying the definition of what it means to be alive, Thoreau hopes to galvanize his audience into understanding that they must learn to "awaken" themselves – that is, to become alert to everything around them. This does not necessarily mean changing the material facts of their lives. Instead, it involves changing the attitude towards or perspective on the life that one already leads.

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.

God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

While Thoreau is certainly far from being an atheist, his suspicion towards established, complicated institutions extends to the religious ones as well. For Thoreau, we don't need elaborate services or fancy churches in order to have a relationship to God. Instead, God's presence can be felt around us. However, it is difficult to sense this, he argues, when we are distracted by the petty details of everyday life, wrapped up in our social lives. By going into nature, by distancing ourselves from society, we can have a more truthful and authentic relationship with God.

Such insistence on a direct relationship with God is part of Thoreau's transcendentalism, a set of beliefs which held that divinity pervades all of nature and which emerged in the United States in the 1830s and was most powerfully argued by Thoreau's mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau has embraced these beliefs and has used them to develop his own notion of an omnipresent God that is fully present in human time, even as He exists beyond human time.

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.

Sounds Quotes

Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Thoreau has spent the last section praising reading and arguing for its benefits, here he suggests that reading alone is not enough. Thoreau makes a distinction between "reading" and "seeing." The first is work, but passive work: it is the work of the student learning his or her lessons. This labor is important and necessary, but ultimately insufficient, because the student must subsequently go out and actively apply this learning. That doesn't mean applying it to a trade or something materially useful, for Thoreau: indeed, "seeing" for him is a kind of active work, a way to use what one has learned in order to better appreciate the surrounding world. 

The potential problem with reading, Thoreau implies, is that it can lead us to another kind of distraction, preventing us from truly seeing and engaging the world around it. Reading thus will give us the tools to see, but then we must engage with nature itself in order to fully appreciate those tools.

Solitude Quotes

I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has spent most of his time at Walden alone, without company. It occasionally crosses his mind that social companionship might also be a part of the good life, despite his embrace of solitude. However, Thoreau then decides that nature itself counts as a companion. Solitude is often considered as negative in society, which tends to consider one who is "alone" as being "lonely." Here Thoreau challenges such an assumption by broadening the idea of "society" to include the living creatures, and the pulsing nature, that is around him. The solitude of nature can even, he suggests, be a remedy for those who feel utterly alone and solitary among other people, and who are led to melancholy as a result. 

The Ponds Quotes

A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Thoreau rapturously describes the beauty of Walden Pond, and also relates certain characteristics of some of the ponds that surrounds it. Here, Thoreau makes clear that for him, these descriptions are not simply in the service of a heightened realism or naturalism – they are directly related to human beings' search for meaning, a task to which he has devoted this book as well as his own time in the woods. By personifying the lake, Thoreau attempts to make Nature more familiar to people, more connected to people, rather than a separate facet of existence separate and different from people. 

Indeed, Thoreau stresses in this passage the close, even mystical connections between nature and people. This connection takes place through a kind of mutual gaze: the beholder's eye meets the eye of the earth, that is, the lake, so that each comes to better understand the other. Here as elsewhere, Thoreau wants to stress that nature isn't something totally separate from human activity, but is instead crucial to what makes human life meaningful.

Baker Farm Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has gone to visit a farmer, John Field, whom he describes as unambitious though hardworking: Field is uninterested in the solitary, distanced life that Thoreau has embraced, since he is much more a man of society. Thoreau has claimed before that he wants his time at Walden Pond to serve as a lesson to other people, but here he doesn't seem too upset by Field's lack of interest in his lifestyle. Instead, Field's apathy actually encourages Thoreau to carry on, as it seems to make clear to him the correctness of his own position. 

Here as elsewhere, Thoreau espouses a transcendental belief in the omnipresence of God – the Creator is everywhere, even perhaps inside human beings, and Thoreau must constantly remind himself of this presence as he enjoys all that nature offers to him. Thoreau embraces the challenges set by nature, the labor and solitude that are necessary there: for him they are not unpleasant hurdles to be surmounted, but rather positive elements of a close relationship with nature.

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 left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.

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

Thoreau has explained previously that he went into the woods in order to learn how to live. While he has assured the reader of the many lessons he learned during his time in the woods, he doesn't claim to have found the "key" to a successful lifestyle – that is, he won't try to convince his readers that what they should do, in order to live a good life, is to pick up and move into the woods by themselves.

Instead, Thoreau expresses here a respect for diversity in life experiences. No one set of principles or bullet points can tell a person how to live well: instead, each person must attempt a number of different ways, trying out a number of different lives. Having learned a great deal in the woods, Thoreau now wants to return to society to try to put some of what he's learned into practice. But he also wants to underline what he sees as an essential value of humility in the various ways people try to find a meaning in their lives.

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.

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.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau concludes, he stresses once again the importance of following one's own dreams rather than the ideas set out by society. "March to the beat of a different drummer" is a phrase so often repeated nowadays that it has become a cliché: but we should remember the more radical context in which Thoreau originally wrote it. All throughout the book, he has cautioned against the powerful conformism of society, which makes it difficult not only for us to follow our own dreams, but also even to understand what is right and what is wrong, since society twists these values so much. The "music" of which Thoreau speaks is thus not just an individual whim, but a powerful spiritual force that people can draw upon as an alternative to the corrupted, and corrupting, moral values of society.

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.