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
Simplicity Over "Progress" Quotes in Walden
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.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.
The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.