His time in Walden Woods became a model of deliberate and ethical living. His words and deeds continue to inspire millions around the world who seek solutions to critical environmental and societal challenges. Henry David Thoreau lived in the mid-nineteenth century during turbulent times in America. Social reformer — Naturalist — Philosopher — Transcendentalist — Scientist. These are just some of the terms by which the work of Henry David Thoreau can be categorized. Wherever in the world individuals and groups embrace human rights over political rights, they invoke the name of Henry David Thoreau and the words of his essay.

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Henry David Thoreau — was an American philosopher, poet, and environmental scientist whose major work, Walden , draws upon each of these identities in meditating on the concrete problems of living in the world as a human being.

He sought to revive a conception of philosophy as a way of life, not only a mode of reflective thought and discourse. He was well-versed in classical Greek and Roman philosophy, ranging from the pre-Socratics through the Hellenistic schools, and was also an avid student of the ancient scriptures and wisdom literature of various Asian traditions. He discussed his own scientific findings with leading naturalists of the day, and read the latest work of Humboldt and Darwin with interest and admiration.

His philosophical explorations of self and world led him to develop an epistemology of embodied perception and a non-dualistic account of mental and material life. In addition to his focus on ethics in an existential spirit, Thoreau also makes unique contributions to ontology, the philosophy of science, and radical political thought.

Although his political essays have become justly famous, his works on natural science were not even published until the late twentieth century, and they help to give us a more complete picture of him as a thinker. Among the texts he left unfinished was a set of manuscript volumes filled with information on Native American religion and culture. Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in and died there in , at the age of forty-four. Although the two American thinkers had a turbulent relationship due to serious philosophical and personal differences, they had a profound and lasting effect upon one another.

It was in the fall of that Thoreau, aged twenty, made his first entries in the multivolume journal he would keep for the rest of his life. Most of his published writings were developed from notes that first appeared on these pages, and Thoreau subsequently revised many entries, so his journal can be considered a finished work in itself.

During his lifetime he published only two books, along with numerous shorter essays that were first delivered as lectures. He lived a simple and relatively quiet life, making his living briefly as a teacher and pencil maker but mostly as a land surveyor. Thoreau had intimate bonds with his family and friends, and remained unmarried although he was deeply in love at least twice.

His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers , was still a work in progress in , when he went to live in the woods by Walden Pond for two years and two months. Thoreau viewed his existential quest as a venture in philosophy, in the ancient Greek sense of the word, because it was motivated by an urgent need to find a reflective understanding of reality that could inform a life of wisdom.

His experience bore fruit in the publication of his literary masterpiece Walden , a work that almost defies categorization: it is a work of narrative prose which often soars to poetic heights, combining philosophical speculation with close observation of a concrete place.

Walden has been admired by a larger world audience than any other book written by an American author, and—whether or not it ought to be called a work of philosophy—it contains a substantial amount of philosophical content, which deserves to be better appreciated than it has been.

Yet, as Cavell also notes, philosophical authors have more than one way to go about their business, and Thoreau—like Descartes in the Meditations —begins his argument by accounting for how he has come to believe that certain questions need to be addressed. In other words, his method is predicated on the belief that it is philosophically worthwhile to clarify the basis of your own perplexity and unrest see Reid , Evidently, he does not accept that whatever we register through our aesthetic and emotional responses ought to be viewed as unreal.

Indeed, Thoreau would argue that the person who is seldom moved by the beauty of things is the one with an inadequate conception of reality, since it is the neutral observer who is less well aware of the world as it is. To say that nature is inherently significant is to say that natural facts are neither inert nor value-free. Note the phrase: the value of a fact. Thoreau does not introduce an artificial distinction between facts and values, or between primary and secondary qualities, since he understands the universe as an organic whole in which mind and matter are inseparable.

The philosopher who seeks knowledge through experience should therefore not be surprised to discover beauty and order in natural phenomena. However, these properties are not projected onto nature from an external perspective—rather, they emerge from within the self-maintaining processes of organic life. It is when we are not guilty of imposing our own purposes onto the world that we are able to view it on its own terms.

One of the things we then discover is that we are involved in a pluralistic universe, containing many different points of view other than our own. Though it prevents my hoeing them, it is of far more worth than my hoeing. In nature we have access to real value, which can be used as a standard against which to measure our conventional evaluations. There are reasons for classifying Thoreau as both a naturalist and a romantic, although both of these categories are perhaps too broad to be very helpful.

His conception of nature is informed by a syncretic appropriation of Greek, Roman, Indian, and other sources, and the result is an eclectic vision that is uniquely his own. For this reason it is difficult to situate Thoreau within the history of modern philosophy, but one plausible way of doing so would be to describe him as articulating a version of transcendental idealism.

This exercise may enable one to create remarkably minute descriptions of a sunset, a battle between red and black ants, or the shapes taken by thawing clay on a sand bank: but its primary value lies in the way it affects the quality of our experience.

Awareness cannot be classified as exclusively a moral or an intellectual virtue, either, since knowing is an inescapably practical and evaluative activity—not to mention, an embodied practice.

In order to attain a clear and truthful view of things, we must refine all the faculties of our embodied consciousness, and become emotionally attuned to all the concrete features of the place in which we are located. In this way, Thoreau outlines an epistemological task that will occupy him for the rest of his life; namely, to cultivate a way of attending to things that will allow them to be experienced as elements of a meaningful world.

Since our ability to appreciate the significance of phenomena is so easily dulled, it requires a certain discipline in order to become and remain a reliable knower of the world. Beauty, like color, does not lie only in the eye of the beholder: flowers, for example, are indeed beautiful and brightly colored.

This does not mean that we are trapped inside of our own consciousness; rather, the point is that it is only through the lens of our own subjectivity that we have access to the external world.

What we are able to perceive, then, depends not only upon where we are physically situated: it is also contingent upon who we are and what we value, or how our attention is focused. Your observation, to be interesting, i. Subjectivity is not an obstacle to truth, according to Thoreau. A true account of the world must do justice to all the familiar properties of objects that the human mind is capable of perceiving. Whether this could be done by a scientific description is a vexing question for Thoreau, and one about which he shows considerable ambivalence.

We can easily fail to perceive the value of being if we do not approach the world with the appropriate kind of emotional comportment. He observes that scientific terminology can provide the means of apprehending something that we had utterly missed until we had a name for it see Walls , Yet he also gives voice to the fear that by weighing and measuring things and collecting quantitative data he may actually be narrowing his vision.

Overall, his position is not that a mystical or imaginative awareness of the world is incompatible with knowledge of measurable facts, but that an exclusive focus on the latter would blind us to whatever aspects of reality fall outside the scope of our measurement. By acknowledging the limits of what we can know with certainty, we open ourselves up to a wider horizon of experience. Truth is radically perspective-dependent, which means that insofar as we are different people we can only be expected to perceive different worlds Walls , It is an admirable goal, and one that remains quite relevant in the philosophical climate of the present day.

Hence, we need to cherish and nurture our capability to discern the difference between the idea and the reality, between what is and what ought to be. It is when we experience dissatisfaction with ourselves or with external circumstances that we are stimulated to act in the interest of making things better.

It follows that the greatest compliment we can pay to another person is to say that he or she enhances our life by inciting us to realize our highest aspirations. In his ethical writings, the notion of wishing good on behalf of another person is often taken to a severe extreme, as if he does not think it possible to ask too much of love and friendship. It is, for example, his understanding of wild nature that informs his sociopolitical ideas. As was noted above, nature is a point of reference outside the polis which can provide valuable moral guidance, reminding us that society is not the measure of all things.

Withdrawing into the natural world allows us to view the state in a broader context and to conceive of ways in which social values and political structures could be improved radically.

This includes unjust laws that ought to be reformed, about which more will be said in a moment, as well as the unwritten rules embodied in prevailing expectations about how one ought to live and what matters. In denouncing a specific pernicious attitude that is widespread among his contemporaries, Thoreau also seeks to identify and analyze the general tendency it exemplifies to defer to public opinion: for this reason, his project of social critique is not only relevant to his parochial context but has universal implications.

He is acutely conscious of the threat that shared modes of discourse can pose to authentic intersubjectivity. Not only is it true that a degree of solitude and distance from our neighbors may actually improve our relations with them, but by moving away from the center of town we liberate ourselves from a slavish adherence to prevailing attitudes.

It is outrageous that he is often stereotyped as a lifelong recluse and hermit. Above all, the political issue that aroused his indignation more than any other was slavery.

Because Thoreau understood philosophy as a way of life, it is only fitting that philosophical ideals would lead him into political action. He was an activist involved in the abolitionist movement on many fronts: he participated in the Underground Railroad, protested against the Fugitive Slave Law, and gave support to John Brown and his party.

Most importantly perhaps, he provides a justification for principled revolt and a method of nonviolent resistance, both of which would have a considerable influence on revolutionary movements in the twentieth century. Political institutions as such are regarded by him with distrust, and although he arguably overestimates the extent to which it is possible to disassociate oneself from them, he convincingly insists that social consensus is not a guarantee of rectitude or truth.

Passively and quietly allowing an unjust practice to continue is tantamount to collaborating with evil, he claims, articulating a principle of noncompliance that would inspire the philosophically informed nonviolent resistance of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among others.

His essay in this respect has a more general pertinence to debates about the individual moral reformer in relation to community norms. It also raises the issue of whether political violence can be justified as the lesser of evils, or in cases where it may be the only available way of ending injustice.

Although at times it sounds as though Thoreau is advocating anarchy, what he demands is a better government, and what he refuses to acknowledge is the authority of one that has become so morally corrupt as to lose the consent of those governed.

There are simply more sacred laws to obey than the laws of society, and a just government—should there ever be such a thing, he adds—would not be in conflict with the conscience of the ethically upright individual.

Thoreau has somewhat misleadingly been classified as a New England transcendentalist, and—even though he never rejected this label—it does not fit in many ways. Some of his major differences from Emerson have already been discussed, and further differences appear when Thoreau is compared to such figures as Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. A history of transcendentalism in New England which appeared in the late nineteenth century mentions Thoreau only once, in passing Frothingham , It was suggested above that a better way of situating Thoreau within the Western philosophical tradition is to consider him a kind of transcendental idealist, in the spirit of Kant.

For reasons that ought to be obvious by now, he should be of interest to students of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling—all of whom he studied at first or second hand—and possibly Schopenhauer. Thoreau was a capable and enthusiastic classicist, whose study of ancient Greek and Roman authors convinced him that philosophy ought to be a lived practice: for this reason, he can profitably be grouped with other nineteenth-century thinkers, such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who were critics of philosophy in the early modern period.

Yet he also has the distinction of being among the first Western philosophers to be significantly influenced by ancient Chinese and Indian thought.

He anticipates Bergson and Merleau-Ponty in his attention to the dynamics of the embodied mind, and shares with Peirce and James a concern for problems of knowledge as they arise within practical experience. Contemporary philosophers are increasingly discovering how much Thoreau has to teach—especially, in the areas of knowledge and perception, and in ethical debates about the value of land and life.

His affinities with the pragmatic and phenomenological traditions, and the enormous resources he offers for environmental philosophy, have also started to receive more attention—and Walden itself continues to be encountered by readers as a remarkable provocation to philosophical thought. Then again, as Thoreau himself notes, it is never too late to give up our prejudices.

Others have observed see Slicer , — that, based on the amount of prominent work on Thoreau as a philosopher which has recently appeared, his profile seems to be ever so gradually rising on the American philosophical landscape. Life and Writings 2. Nature and Human Existence 3. The Ethics of Perception 4. Friendship and Politics 5. Life and Writings Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in and died there in , at the age of forty-four.

Locating Thoreau Thoreau has somewhat misleadingly been classified as a New England transcendentalist, and—even though he never rejected this label—it does not fit in many ways. Originally published in The Journal of Henry D.

Thoreau , 14 volumes, ed. Torrey and F. Allen, New York: Dover,


Henry David Thoreau

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile 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. I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life, which some would call impertinent, though they do not appear to me at all impertinent, but, considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent. Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid; and the like. Others have been curious to learn what portion of my income I devoted to charitable purposes; and some, who have large families, how many poor children I maintained.


Thoreau's books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry amount to more than 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions are his writings on natural history and philosophy, in which he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history , two sources of modern-day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close observation of nature, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore, while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity , and attention to practical detail. He was a lifelong abolitionist , delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending the abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy , Mahatma Gandhi , and Martin Luther King Jr. Thoreau is sometimes referred to as an anarchist.


Walden is viewed not only as a philosophical treatise on labour, leisure, self-reliance, and individualism but also as an influential piece of nature writing. Walden is the product of the two years and two months Thoreau lived in semi-isolation by Walden Pond near Concord , Massachusetts. He built a small cabin on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and was almost totally self-sufficient, growing his own vegetables and doing odd jobs. It was his intention at Walden Pond to live simply and have time to contemplate, walk in the woods, write, and commune with nature.


The text is a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment , voyage of spiritual discovery, satire , and—to some degree—a manual for self-reliance. First published in , Walden details Thoreau's experiences over the course of two years, two months, and two days in a cabin he built near Walden Pond amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson , near Concord , Massachusetts. The experience later inspired Walden , in which Thoreau compresses the time into a single calendar year and uses passages of four seasons to symbolize human development. The book can be seen as performance art , a demonstration of how easy it can be to acquire the four necessities of life. Once acquired, he believed people should then focus their efforts on personal growth. By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain a more objective understanding of society through personal introspection.

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