For two years and two months Thoreau lived alone in the woods by Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he wrote the bulk of the book, though now he has left the woods and returned to civilization. Many people have asked him about his daily life in the woods, and this book is in part an attempt to answer those readers. He defends writing about himself and his use of the first person against the charge of egotism by saying that he is the person that he knows best, after all, and that he aims to give "a simple and sincere account of his own life."
Most men, says Thoreau, work too much. Men who have inherited farms suffer personal and financial restrictions and spend their lives toiling on many acres when they could have survived on planting a few square feet. Such excessive work prevents them from plucking the "finer fruits" of life, like leisure and friendship. Addressing the poor, he denounces the lifestyle of worrying about one's debt and living in fear of not being able to make enough money, comparing it to slavery and advocating for "self-emancipation."
Self-reliance and the call for simplicity come together in Thoreau's criticism of how most men work. By distracting them from both the true company of men and the joys of solitude, working too hard and worrying about money leaves men exhausted and distracted and degrades their lives.
What is the chief purpose of man? Thoreau asks. Most men live in despair because they have forgotten that they have a choice in how to conduct their lives. Instead, they follow the older generations, calling them wise. But it is not enough to make choices based on received wisdom, even if those choices have been practiced through history and written about by the ancients. Human lives are as various as nature. A man must be open to change and must himself figure out what is the right way for him to live.
Thoreau sees himself as addressing the highest and most basic question of human life. If man follows received wisdom, he forsakes himself and cuts himself off from the possibility of living a good life, at one with himself and spiritually fulfilled. Even the writing of the ancients is less important than a man's own internal compass.
Human advancements throughout time have not changed "the essential laws of man's existence." Thoreau designs a primitive life for himself in order to figure out what are the barest necessities a man needs to live, the elements without which no one has been able to live. He determines these necessities to be: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. His aim is to combine the toughness of primitive life with the intellectualness of civilization.
By paring his life down to the essentials, Thoreau seeks to free himself from the excesses of society. His lifestyle is a kind of experiment conducted on himself whose aim is to discover the nature of mankind's existence in general.
The luxuries and comforts to which men are so attached only hinder mankind. Being poor in outward riches is often a sign of being rich in inward riches. Thoreau calls his way of life "voluntary poverty" and suggests it is a good vantage point from which to observe human life. He seeks to solve the problems of how to live not only theoretically, like a professor, but practically as well. His advice on how to live, he says, is not directed to those who are strong and have mastered their lives, nor to those who are happy with the current state, but to those who are discontented and overworked, and also to those who are wealthy but poor in spirit.
Thoreau takes simplicity to be a moral obligation for him, both a form of self-reliance and a way to live a good life. He wants his life to be an example to all those in society who feel their existences lack meaning, whether because of too much work or too little purpose. From his solitude he calls them to change their lives.
Before coming to the woods, Thoreau spent time as a newspaper reporter, (though the editor never published his writing), a self-appointed weatherman, and an amateur herdsman and gardener of the town, before it became clear that his fellow townsmen did not appreciate his work. He tells a parable about an Indian who gets angry at a lawyer because the lawyer refuses to buy his woven baskets, and Thoreau notes that, like the Indian, he did not realize he had to sell work that other people wanted. Instead of adapting to the town, though, he chooses to go to the woods and work as he wants, calling it "a good place for business."
Thoreau tried all kinds of ways he might belong to society, but found that being alone at Walden would be the best place for him. The parable of the Indian basket-weaver represents the ways in which belonging to society dictates the kind of work a man must do and therefore limits him. Instead, Thoreau chooses solitude and self-reliance.
Clothing, Thoreau argues, is an embarrassingly excessive concern for most people. They worry more about having new, pristine clothes than they do about having a clean conscience. Thoreau urges that choice of clothing be led not by a taste for novelty or by the whims of fashion, which people adhere to do fanatically, but by utility and simplicity. Without clothes, a man's social rank would be rightfully indistinguishable. The clothing industry does not serve people's best interests but only makes corporations rich.
Criticism of society is one of the means by which Thoreau seeks to set out his vision of a good life. A taste for new fashions, he believes, is one of society's ills because it leads people away from themselves, distracting them from their inner lives, and it leads people away from each other, emphasizing their differences and exacerbating their financial difficulties.
Shelter, he continues, began as an extension of the need for warmth fulfilled by clothing and later developed to mean also a place for comfort and affections. What is the barest kind of shelter we need? Thoreau asks. Humankind began by requiring only caves for shelter. He sees large boxes by the railroad in which the laborers lock up their tools at night and considers the virtues of living an independent and pared down life in one of them. He admires the simple architecture of the Indian wigwam. He sings the praises of economy, or carefully managing one's resources, and he finds it unacceptable that homes are so expensive and luxurious that most people can't even afford to own one or spend half their lives earning the one they live in.
Nature supplied man's first home, caves. Later, shelter began to be thought of as encompassing man's need for other people. Considering the boxes by the railroad and wigwams as possible shelters underscores Thoreau's commitment to discovering the barest possible necessities of life. He believes that simplicity can free people from the lives they think they want but that actually limit them.
What are the differences between "the civilized man" and "the savage"? Thoreau asks. The civilized man conceives of institutions into which the individual is absorbed for the good of mankind. This trade-off, Thoreau maintains, is a great sacrifice, and an unnecessary one. The civilized man is morally and spiritually distracted, while the savage lives free of the threat of poverty. As far as shelter goes, civilization has created palaces but not noblemen to live in them. While the wealthy set the taste for the mass of people to chase after, the existence of the poor, who live in shanties, has been degraded. In reality, the pursuits of the civilized man are no worthier than that of the savages, so their dwellings should not be any different.
For Thoreau, the savage is a model of self-reliance because he belongs to no institutions and does not even conceive of human relations in such a way. He leads a spiritually full existence, pursuing his true work and living free from the distractions of society, such as debt, whereas the civilized man chases after material things, places importance in reliance on other people, and neglects his personal development. Of all the men living in society, the poor have it the worst, yet it is possible for even them to improve their lives.
The best art, Thoreau asserts, is made out of man's desire to free himself from the constraints of civilization. Paradoxically, however, there is no room for art in civilized life because people are distracted by lesser pursuits and pursue false beauty. Before beauty can really be appreciated, the lives of ordinary men must be dismantled and brought to their most basic state, as the first settlers of Concord lived, making homes of holes in the ground until they were secure enough and had enough food to build houses. Society's habit of building luxurious dwellings is a symptom of spiritual deprivation.
Thoreau sees art as a kind of work borne out of a person's struggle for self-reliance. As long as others in society are distracted by material goods and live empty lives, however, they will be unable to perceive the true beauty and spiritual richness of such creations. Simplicity, then, is a path to living a spiritually rich life.
In March 1845, Thoreau recounts, he went to Walden Pond and began to cut down trees for his house, singing while he did his work and taking pleasure in the beauty of the woods and the remaining frost. One day he goes to inspect the shanty of railroad worker James Collins, which he buys and tears down for the timber. He digs his cellar. In May, with the help of some acquaintances whose characters he applauds, he raises the frame of his house. Soon he builds his fireplace and has finished his dwelling.
Building his own house is the ultimate symbol of Thoreau's self-reliance, as he works in solitude amid nature's beauty to create a simple dwelling where he can pursue a good life. At the same time, he takes pleasure in the company of others and sees a good use in James Collins's dilapidated house.
Perhaps if all men built their own houses, Thoreau suggests, the poetic faculty would be developed universally, just as all birds sing while they build their nests. Instead, only carpenters build houses. He rails against the division of labor, which creates a community of men and thereby traps them in it. He wishes for all men to experience "the pleasure of construction" and advocates for an architecture that ignores the appearance of the building; its beauty then will be true and humble and not superficial.
Thoreau takes pleasure in the building of his house, seeing no distinction between work and leisure. He sees in birds a natural model for how to work, as they take physical labor to be a source of spiritual richness. He wants men to be self-reliant so each can experience this kind of beauty. He sees simplicity as true beauty, separated from appearances.
Thoreau keeps meticulous records of all his expenses in building his house and includes a chart of them. He finds that in total he has paid less than many people pay in annual rent, including Cambridge College students, who waste so much money on their education when they could avoid that expense and learn more if they were not just to study life under a professor but "earnestly live it" and acquire knowledge by their own hands.
Thoreau's charts are a sign of his dedication to living economically so that he can avoid all distractions, such as formal schooling is to students, who could get a better and cheaper education if they set out to educate themselves.
Like the college system and other modern advancements, railroads and traveling in general, Thoreau believes, are a ridiculous waste of money and another symptom of an unhealthy way of life in which a person spends most of his life earning money so that he can enjoy only a small part of it. In addition, people seem to place more value on the speed of getting from one place to another than they do on the importance of what they do in either place.
Travel and other purported signs of society's "progress" are not only a practical waste of money but a spiritual problem; Thoreau adheres to the Transcendentalist idea that one must find meaning in the present moment rather than suffer through it in order to enjoy a later time.
In order to defray his expenses, Thoreau plants a bean-field of couple of acres and makes a modest gain. The next year he does even better. Comparing himself to the farmers of Concord, Thoreau believes he has done better than them financially, and all while maintaining his independence. Out of greed, farmers use the labor of animals, but it is a great folly, he says, because whereas the farmer wants the animals to work for him, he ends up working for the animals.
Planting a small amount of land with crops is the simplest way to make just enough money, Thoreau believes, as opposed to the Concord farmers, who try to make a lot of money and restrict themselves in the process. For Thoreau, nature provides everything he needs, including the chance to make his own livelihood, and to do so simply.
Men should not be judged by their architecture or material wealth, Thoreau believes, but by the richness of their abstract thought: not by the temples of the East but by the Bhagvat-Geeta. Nations obsess over making monuments to prolong their renown and satisfy their vanity, but Thoreau finds them vulgar.
The building of great monuments is an improper kind of work for man. Not only is it an offense to Thoreau's taste for simplicity, but it is also a vain pursuit that distracts from true spiritual striving.
Continuing with his record-keeping, Thoreau makes charts of all his purchases for household goods and food, detailing all that he ate and asserting that a man can eat very simply and retain his health. He adds up all his expenses, adds up all his earnings, and finds the balance to be a modest deficit, against which he has gained a house, a new way of life, and the contentment that comes along with them.
Thoreau's record-keeping is proof that his philosophy of self-reliance and simplicity, far from being merely abstract, can practically be lived, and furthermore, that it does not require one to deprive oneself. Thoreau emphasizes that he enjoys his life and lives well.
After many experiments in making bread, Thoreau finds that the best way is to use just meal and water, not even salt. Originally he used leavening but then discovered by accident that he could do without it, and he notes that Marcus Porcius Cato's ancient recipe for bread does not include it. He relishes making his own food and encourages his readers to do so.
Even in bread-making Thoreau finds an opportunity to figure it out for himself, and his recipe is the simplest possible one. He stresses individuality; he does not follow Marcus Porcius Cato's recipe but enjoys the fact that they independently discovered the same thing.
For furniture and household goods, Thoreau chooses to have only the basics, including a table, a desk, three chairs, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, and one spoon. He believes that it is a shame to have lots of belongings. Once he attended an auction of a man's effects, and he says it would have been better to have had "a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them," as in the Indian practice of casting off old possessions annually and burning them together in a public ritual and feast.
To have such few belongings is as much as sign of the simplicity of Thoreau's way of life as it is a sign of his solitude. Living unencumbered by material possessions is a spiritual matter, so such a bonfire would be purifying to the spirit and a cause for communal celebration.
Thoreau finds that he can meet all his expenses by working six weeks out of the year, leaving the rest of his time for study. He tried teaching and trade, even contemplated picking huckleberries, but found that day labor was the best work because it left him freest. Most of all he values his freedom and doesn't desire more money because of the sacrifice in time it would entail. Labor should not be loved for its own sake, Thoreau argues. Supporting oneself does not have to be a hardship, and all of life can be a pleasure. At the same time, it does not suffice merely to follow his example; the individual must find his own way in the world, and it is best to go alone.
Part of Thoreau's goal is to see how drastically he can prove that the amount most people work is ridiculous. He believes that work is not inherently good, though it can be a path to good if done correctly. Even in giving advice, he advocates for self-reliance in his readers, making sure they know not necessarily to follow him but to figure it out themselves.
Some townsmen have accused Thoreau of being selfish. It is true, philanthropy and charity do not agree with his constitution, he says, and he, like all men, have an obligation to follow his own "genius" and not be persuaded to do the work that belongs to other men. A man, however, should not set out consciously to do good, as in giving a poor man money; what good he does he must do without knowing it, letting the good unconsciously overflow into their conversation.
Thoreau believes that philanthropy is a flawed work, but values individuality so much that he acknowledges that if a man truly discovers philanthropy to be his calling, he should pursue it. In general, though, setting out to do good to others actually does them harm because it compromises their self-reliance.
True goodness is not mere kindness or benevolence, as most people think, but spiritual strength, which belongs likewise to men of learning and intelligence throughout history and to the Indians who, being superior to physical pain, suggested new techniques to their torturers as they were being burned at the stake.
Kindness and benevolence are tame in comparison with the genius that Thoreau has in mind when he talks about spiritual strength, which transcends the physical in search of something greater.
Philanthropy, Thoreau believes, is the selfish thing. Instead of spreading courage and personal fulfillment, it spreads despair. A man's desire to be philanthropic stems from his own fears and pains, and helping others is a way to cure himself of them. Thoreau wishes philanthropists relief from their distress and the capacity to escape that kind of life.
Philanthropy is a perfect example, Thoreau believes, of the kind of harm that men unknowingly perpetrate on each other, especially when they think they are doing good. Thoreau wants the philanthropists to take care of themselves and spare others.
Organized religion is about consoling man's fears, not nourishing his hope, Thoreau believes, and has thus failed even in simple praise of God. To cure any ill and restore mankind to a state of spiritual glory, men must be as simple as nature. He quotes the Gulistan of Persian poet Sheik Sadi, who writes that only the cypress tree is called free, because it bears no fruit and therefore, unlike other trees, which have blooming seasons and withered seasons, it is always flourishing.
Instead of organized religion, Thoreau wants each person to pursue his own spiritual path. He takes nature as a model for man's spiritual life, singling out the cypress for its ability to live unencumbered, to work only as hard as necessary, and to thrive without effort.
Thoreau closes the chapter with a poem called "The Pretensions of Poverty" by English poet Thomas Carew, which criticizes the poor who have become lazy and complacent with mediocrity and have forgotten to strive for the great virtues: bravery, prudence, magnanimity, and heroism.
Though Thoreau calls his lifestyle "voluntary poverty," the poem he quotes makes it clear that he thinks not all poverty is virtuous. All men despite circumstances must strive to live a good life.