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Henry David Thoreau – “Why I Went to the Woods” Essay

This excerpt is from his famous essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. First, some background; in 1842, his brother John died of lockjaw. Three years later, Henry decided to write a book commemorating a canoe trip he had taken with John in 1839. Seeking a quiet place to write, he followed a friend’s suggestion and built a small cabin on the north shore of Walden Pond on a piece of land owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He started work on his cabin in March of 1845. On the 4th of July, he moved in. Thus began one of the great and lasting experiments in life and thought of the whole of human experience. “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.” Thoreau otherwise filled his time by working in his garden, talking with visitors, reading, and writing in his diary. But most of all, he walked and thought, and it’s difficult to tell now which was the more important activity.

It seems that, in his two years living in his little cabin in the woods he brought himself to a state of conscious living, where thought and action were harmoniously combined. This story is about his rejection of the world’s definition of ‘success’ and so he demanded a life of personal freedom. He went to the woods, built a humble cabin on the edge of Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts…and learned about nature and life. He rejected the Establishment and all its trappings. He saw such possessions as fancy clothes and elaborate furniture as so much extra baggage. He demanded a fresh, uncluttered existence with time for self-exploration. He would, he told the world, “breathe after his own fashion.” All aspects of life for Thoreau focused on simplicity. When Thoreau’s two years at Walden had ended, he left with no regrets: “I left the woods for as good a reason as why I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one . . . “

His experiment had been a success. Thoreau had learned many lessons, had taken time to examine his inner self and his world, and proved he could live under the simplest conditions and still be fulfilled: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that as 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.” To him, most men live lives of “quiet desperation,” and have needed to simplify, to cast off material encumbrances and achieve true freedom. The stages of spiritual evolution that a man passes through all prepare him for the more difficult inner development; and every man, he believed, possesses an inner spiritual instinct which, if nurtured and cared for, will divulge his divine nature.


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