The universe is wide and no man needs to be tied down, Thoreau believes. He advocates exploration, however, not of distant lands, but of the lands within, urging men to open pathways within them to new thoughts. It is easier, he says, to sail thousands of miles than it is to explore "the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone."
Using a natural metaphor for the mysterious and powerful life within a man, Thoreau both criticizes the civilized man's penchant for traveling and encourages men to explore solitude as a pathway to a greater spiritual life.
The French revolutionary Mirabeau took up highway robbery in order to see what it would take within him to oppose society, but, Thoreau says, this was unnecessary because any man can find himself opposing society by following higher laws. Furthermore, he continues, one must not oppose society for the sake of opposing it, but must merely obey the laws of one's own being.
Thoreau often opposes society and its follies, but he opposes it not as an empty experiment, as Mirabeau does, but because he is following his own soul and testing out how to live his deepest beliefs.
Thoreau says he left the woods because he had "several more lives to live." Within a week of living at Walden, he had tread a path from his door to the pond. He says that every man must follow his own course; if he simplifies his life, the universe will seem more simple, solitude and poverty will give him rewards, and he will live with the higher order of beings. Thoreau criticizes "common sense," which he calls "the sense of men asleep."
If Thoreau were to live at Walden forever, there is a danger, he seems to think, that even he would have become complacent with his life. Instead, he leaves for the same reason he went there: to follow his own impulses, as unpredictable as they may be.
Are modern men intellectual dwarfs compared to the ancients? Thoreau considers. Even if it is true, it is no matter, he says, because men must still live their lives. Man must step to his own drummer and not worry about comparing himself to others or to the men who preceded him, Thoreau believes.
The advice Thoreau gives to each man, to follow his own beliefs and inclinations, he also gives to all men. Self-reliance frees men from such petty concerns as comparisons with others.
Thoreau tells the parable of an artist in the city of Kouroo who strove for perfection in making a staff. Because he devoted his entire life to this one task, his singleness of purpose gave him perennial youth and he did not grow older. "As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way," he says. After ages had passed, the artist decided he was done, and had made not only one of the most beautiful creations in the world but also a whole system of living.
The artist in Kouroo rejects petty human concerns and strives for a greater existence through devotion to his work. His purity of heart and dedication to his own deepest interests makes him into a kind of higher being and he is able to produce not only great beauty but also discover his own pathway to living a good life.
However poor one's life is, Thoreau says, one must live it and take pleasure in it and not insult it. The poor live the most independent lives in all of society, he says, advocating that men cultivate poverty, dismiss their worries about new clothes and society and gossip, and stick to the life of the mind. Poverty, he says, is actually good because it prevents one from trifling with the excesses of society. A man must find and pursue work that satisfies him, and that alone will raise up his existence.
Reversing accepted societal beliefs about poverty, Thoreau believes that the poor, because they are the least tied down by material possessions, have an increased opportunity to live a higher existence. The work Thoreau believes a man must seek does not necessarily have to provide a man with much money.
Any moment can be the moment when one's new life begins, Thoreau believes. Life within a person is like a river that can one year flood higher than ever before, or like the bug that lived in a table for sixty years and seemed to be dead and then one day emerged. The bug is proof of resurrection and immortality, Thoreau says, and man must always strive to renew himself, because he can never know what new life will emerge from him.
Thoreau's purpose in writing his book is to demonstrate and wake others to the existence of the immense possibility that is inherent in all life, which anyone may become aware of at any moment.