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 and therefore struggle through their lives and exaggerate the importance of the work they do, Thoreau believes that work should not be difficult or excessive or distract from one’s proper pursuits but instead be indistinguishable from leisure, because all parts of life should be rewarding. The contentment and self-respect that a person earns through this kind of work, he believes, can elevate him and bring him closer to nature and to himself.
The individual must discover what work is right for him, Thoreau writes. He focuses on two kinds of work: physical labor and intellectual pursuits. On one hand, he builds his own house, a modest cabin made of wood and brick. In addition, he works every morning in his bean-field, turning up the soil for the good of the plants, not strenuously but meditatively. He takes pride in earning his living by his own hands, and it is his physical labor that provides him with shelter, food, and the other necessities that make his time at Walden possible. On the other hand, he devotes himself to reading, has great reverence for literature and philosophy, and wishes more people would see themselves as perpetual students, as he sees himself. The book is peppered with quotations from Eastern philosophers, English poets, and other writers whom he believes enrich him spiritually. Thoreau seeks a lifestyle that combines these two kinds of work, each with their own type of nobility, in a mutually beneficial and complementary way.
Work 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.
All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.
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?
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.
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.