Henry David Thoreau

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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
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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…

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Thoreau sees work as the basis of self-reliance, a source of spiritual fulfillment, and a path to a morally good life. His central motivation in going to Walden is to figure out what kind of life he should be living (what he calls his attempt to "live deliberately"), and in large part that attempt comes down to determining what kinds of work he should be pursuing. Unlike most people, whom he believes work too hard…

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Simplicity Over "Progress"

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…

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Solitude and Society

Thoreau deeply values both solitude and society and brings these two seemingly contradictory impulses together in creative, paradoxical ways. On one hand, his purpose in going to Walden, where he stayed for more than two years, is to be alone, so he can "transact some private business." The book is for the most part a record of a man’s time spent in solitude, and the reflections he has in that state. He stresses the importance…

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When Thoreau perceives nature, he sees an inexhaustible source of wisdom, beauty, and spiritual nourishment. He regards it with great respect and awe while also having with it an intimate familiarity and comfort. Many chapters in the book are dedicated to his fond, painstaking observations of the natural world, from the way the ice breaks up on the pond in springtime, to the habits of the rabbits and fish and geese, which he sees as…

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Transcendentalism, Spirituality, and the Good Life

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…

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