My favorite passages from Henry David Thoreau's writings:

(Compiled by Bruce Carley)     Site Map


"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 practice 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 ..." (Walden, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For")

"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; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the licence 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. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." (Walden, "Conclusion")

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation." (Walden, "Economy")

"Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." (Walden, "Conclusion")

"Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already." (Civil Disobedience)

"O for a man who is a man, and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through!" (Civil Disobedience)

"There is a stronger desire to be respectable to one's neighbors than to one's self." (Journal, 1845-47, undated)

"The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?" (Walden, "Economy")

"Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run 'amok' against society; but I preferred that society should run 'amok' against me, it being the desperate party." (Walden, "The Village")

"If common sense had been consulted, how many marriages would never have taken place; if uncommon or divine sense, how few marriages such as we witness would ever have taken place!" (Letter to H.G.O. Blake, September 1852)

"Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have." (Walden, "Economy")

"It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow." (Walden, "Economy")

"Only those who go to soirees and legislative halls must have new coats, coats to change as often as the man changes in them. But if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do; will they not? ... I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes." (Walden, "Economy")

"No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience." (Walden, "Economy")

"The nearest approach to discovering what we are is in dreams." (Journal, April 27, 1841)

"Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake." (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, "Wednesday")

"The highest that we can attain is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence." (Excursions, "Walking")

"Say, Not so, and you will outcircle the philosophers." (Journal, June 26, 1840)

"To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." (Walden, "Economy")

"To live like a philosopher is to live, not foolishly, like other men, but wisely and according to universal laws." (Miscellanies, "Carlyle and His works")

"What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook." (Journal, 1850, undated)

"Any fool can make a rule, and every fool will mind it." (Journal, February 3, 1860)

"The true poet will ever live aloof from society, wild to it, as the finest singer is the wood thrush, a forest bird." (Journal, May 11, 1854)

"That nation is not Christian where the principles of humanity do not prevail, but the prejudices of race." (Journal, September 25, 1851)

"Say what you have to say, not what you ought." (Walden, "Conclusion")

"The one great rule of compassion - and if I were a professor of rhetoric I should insist on this - is to speak the truth." (Miscellanies, "Last Days of John Brown")

"Truth never turns to rebuke falsehood; her own straightforwardness is the severest correction." (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, "Thursday")

"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." (Walden, "Conclusion")

"To be serene and successful we must be at one with the universe. The least conscious and needless injury inflicted on any creature is to its extent a suicide. What peace - or life - can a murderer have?" (Journal, May 28, 1854)

"It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right." (Civil Disobedience)

"My civil neighbor, the tax gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with, - for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel, - and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government." (Civil Disobedience)

"It matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever." (Civil Disobedience)

"If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then I say break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn." (Civil Disobedience)

"If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man." (Civil Disobedience)

"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 really a 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." (Civil Disobedience)

"I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.... If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about." (Walden, "Economy")

"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensible, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind." (Walden, "Economy")

"The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." (Walden, "Economy")

"I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business." (Life Without Principle)

"If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!" (Life Without Principle)

"Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now." (Life Without Principle)

"The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse. If the laborer gets no more than the wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself. If you would get money as a writer or lecturer, you must be popular, which is to go down perpendicularly. Those services which the community will most readily pay for, it is most disagreeable to render. You are paid for being something less than a man." (Life Without Principle)

"The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get "a good job," but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends. Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it." (Life Without Principle)

"It is remarkable that there are few men so well employed, so much to their minds, but that a little money or fame would commonly buy them off from their present pursuit." (Life Without Principle)

"The community has no bribe that will tempt a wise man. You may raise money enough to tunnel a mountain, but you cannot raise money enough to hire a man who is minding his own business. An efficient and valuable man does what he can, whether the community pay him for it or not." (Life Without Principle)

"But I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living." (Life Without Principle)

"Cold and hunger seem more friendly to my nature than those methods which men have adopted and advise to ward them off." (Life Without Principle)

"The title wise is, for the most part, falsely applied. How can one be a wise man, if he does not know any better how to live than other men? if he is only more cunning and intellectually subtle?" (Life Without Principle)

"The ways in which most men get their living, that is, live, are mere makeshifts, and a shirking of the real business of life, chiefly because they do not know, but partly because they do not mean, any better." (Life Without Principle)

"The rush to California, for instance, and the attitude, not merely of merchants, but of philosophers and prophets, so called, in relation to it, reflect the greatest disgrace on mankind. That so many are ready to live by luck, and so get the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky, without contributing any value to society! And that is called enterprise! I know of no more startling development of the immorality of trade, and all the common modes of getting a living. The philosophy and poetry and religion of such a mankind are not worth the dust of a puffball." (Life Without Principle)

"A man had better starve at once than lose his innocence in the process of getting his bread." (Life Without Principle)

"I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality." (Life Without Principle)

"What is it to be free from King George and continue the slaves of King Prejudice? What is it to be born free and not to live free? What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom? Is it a freedom to be slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast?" (Life Without Principle)

"When we want culture more than potatoes, and illumination more than sugar-plums, then the great resources of a world are taxed and drawn out, and the result, or staple production, is, not slaves, nor operatives, but men, those rare fruits called heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, and redeemers." (Life Without Principle)

"In short, as a snow-drift is formed where there is a lull in the wind, so, one would say, where there is a lull of truth, an institution springs up. But the truth blows right on over it, nevertheless, and at length blows it down." (Life Without Principle)

"Those things which now most engage the attention of men, as politics and the daily routine, are, it is true, vital functions of human society, but should be unconsciously performed, like the corresponding functions of the physical body." (Life Without Principle)


See also the full text of Thoreau's essay, Life Without Principle, in which I have highlighted my favorite passages from that particular discourse.