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 did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
I was ten when I first read those words. The author, born this day in 1817, and who died in the early years of the Civil War, was named David at birth, switching his middle and first names after 4 years at Harvard, known to us as Henry David Thoreau.
His family ran a pencil factory, in which he worked for much of his adult life.
He was an educator, having taught in Concord Academy only to quit shortly after beginning because he refused to administer corporal punishment. He ran a school with his brother. He was a live in tutor for two members of the Emerson family.
He was an author of profound influence, writing not only Walden, or a Life in the Woods, published finally in 1854, about two years living in a cabin upon the suggesting of Ellery Channing a decade earlier, but also an elegy to his brother John after the latter’s death – A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers – and a work that influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi and King – Resistance to Civil Government, more commonly known as Civil Disobedience
His life intersected that of many important people. His literary agent was Horace Greeley. Emerson introduced him to the likes of Channing, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was a strong abolitionist.
I first read Walden at ten. I have reread it many times, one of the few works that I return to constantly. I still have that beat-up green leather edition I encountered in 1956 on a bookcase outside the bathroom my sister and I shared on the 2nd floor of our house in Larchmont NY. Over the years I have also come to appreciate his other writings. Today I want to honor Thoreau.
When I think of Walden I am often reminded of a poem by William Butler Yeats, ” The Lake Isle of Innisfree:”
I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
I grew up in a middle class suburb, half an hour by train from Midtown Manhattan, where my father worked at Macy’s. When I was young, the entire neighborhood was not yet developed. There was a heavily wooded lot across our back street, in the midst of which was a somewhat run-down house occupied by a man who was a longer, a bit of a kook. At one point I remember my mother commenting that he could not really live like Thoreau in the midst of Larchmont. Byt the time I was 12 the woods were being cleared, houses built on the subdivided property. Other undeveloped plots were also cleared. We bought the one next door and turned it into a place to grow our own fruits and vegetables, selling it only when I graduated from high school.
There was an appeal to wandering in the woods. During the summers, 8 of which between 1854 and 1962 I spent in Interlochen Michigan at what was then called National Music Camp, we would walk from the Boys camp through the woods of Interlochen State Park to the main part of camp, with the performance venues, and the girls’ camps. Some of the most delightful times were to go on overnight and three day canoe trips, experiencing the northern part of the Lower Peninsula in a time before it became more heavily developed. I found a growing love of woods, even as I was violently allergic to both bee stings and poison ivy, and found myself the favorite target of mosquitos. Still, there was something about being in a more natural, and primitive, environment. I also found myself drawn to the possibility of solitude.
Solitude. Also a repeated theme in my life, and part of why I often found myself drawn to monasteries, spending a summer in an Episcopalian Benedictine monastery in my late 20s, including going off to a remote cabin by a lake for several days on retreat – my own experience of Walden? Later I would make multiple trips to Mount Athos in Greece, as well as visiting Orthodox monasteries in New York State (Jordanville, near Utica where my father had grown up) and Massachusetts (Brookline).
I trace much of this interest to the intersection of exploring woods as a young boy and discovering Thoreau in the midst of that time. His words have influenced me ever since. Sometimes it is short expressions, such as
A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.
As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
Or perhaps it would be something I have in common with Thoreau, which is that no matter how much i might want to simplify my life and be without “things” I could not be without books:
Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business.
Thoreau wrote from his own experience. During his years at Walden Pond he was arrested for refusal to pay several years of back poll taxes, in large part due to his opposition to the Mexican War and to slavery. He spent the night in jail until his aunt – against his wishes – paid his taxes for him. This lead to two things. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him while he was incarcerated, supposedly leading to the following exchange:
Emerson: Thoreau, what are you doing in jail?
Thoreau: Emerson what are you doing out of jail?
Of greater importance for the future of humanity, it also lead to Thoreau’s further reflections on the experience. He gave lectures on “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government” (one of which greatly influenced Bronson Alcott) and he went on to write the work to which we normally refer as Civil Disobedience
The following selection from near the beginning lays out the context in which Thoreau wrote:
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.
Shortly thereafter he posits how a thinking man should respond:
How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.
In Part Two Thoreau challenged the idea of supremacy of law:
Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
He lays down a marker that is clear, even if for many it is an impractical way of changing politics:
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
Yet Thoreau takes the idea further and posits a set of responses that may seem familiar if one looks at the accomplishments of either Gandhi or King:
A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.
He offers an explanation – of a sort – to justify such actions:
hen I meet a government which says to me, “Your money or your life,” why should I be in haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society. I am not the son of the engineer. I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.
Some have accused Thoreau of advocating anarchism. In Part Three one finds words that seem to undercut that point of view, because he does not oppose ALL taxes, although the words simultaneously raise an issue of political loyalty as opposed to individual conscience that some MIGHT interpret as being anarchic:
I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countrymen now. It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with – the dollar is innocent – but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.
The final extended paragraph of the work contains words that may speak to some today who question much of what our government does, and how it is increasingly become tilted towards certain interests and against the interests and even the liberty of conscience of others:
The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to – for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well – is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher ( was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
Thoreau is rarely taught in American schools. He is referred to – most commonly with passing references to Walden, or in conjunction with King (although too often the influences upon him are limited to Gandhi, without recognizing Thoreau’s influence on the Mahatma). Perhaps that is because his words represent a threat to the way our government and our economy operate today.
I first read Thoreau’s words on Civil Disobedience when I was in high school, before my own involvement with the Civil Rights movement, which began about the time of my graduation. I was wrestling with issues of matters of conscience then, just as I still do today.
The greatest tribute I can pay to the influence of Henry David Thoreau on my own life is to say that I find it necessary always to take time to reflect, to pause, to consider implications of how I live. His words are not the only source of this consistent pattern in my life. I can find it in poetic words, such as those quoted above from Yeats. I can find it in the words of philosophers, in religious texts. I am challenge to such a path by encountering the lives of those who live authentically in ways that impact me: I think of teachers such as the late John Davison at Haverford College, or of those who have guided me spiritually such as former abbot Benedict Reid of St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers Michigan, or my former spiritual father Aimilianos of Simona Petra on Mount Athos.
Let me end this tribute to Thoreau with a few selections from the Conclusion of Walden, words that have been with me for more than half a century. They speak to me. Perhaps they will speak to you.
In tribute to the Pencil Maker, born this day in 1817.
No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well. For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out. In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is. Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe. Tom Hyde, the tinker, standing on the gallows, was asked if he had anything to say. “Tell the tailors,” said he, “to remember to make a knot in their thread before they take the first stitch.” His companion’s prayer is forgotten.
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. . . .
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as cold as the ices. I thought that there was no need of ice to freeze them. They talked to me of the age of the wine and the fame of the vintage; but I thought of an older, a newer, and purer wine, of a more glorious vintage, which they had not got, and could not buy. The style, the house and grounds and “entertainment” pass for nothing with me. I called on the king, but he made me wait in his hall, and conducted like a man incapacitated for hospitality. There was a man in my neighborhood who lived in a hollow tree. His manners were truly regal. I should have done better had I called on him. . . .
The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats. It was not always dry land where we dwell. I see far inland the banks which the stream anciently washed, before science began to record its freshets. Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts – from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb – heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board – may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!
I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.