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Themes in Walden
Themes Examples in Walden:
" be an azad, or free..." See in text (Economy)
The English poet Thomas Carew's (1595–1640) poem "The Pretensions of Poverty" concludes Thoreau's first chapter. The poem criticizes the poor who have forgotten what it means to strive for virtue and who have become lazy in their mediocrity. Although Thoreau has called his lifestyle at Walden a kind of "voluntary poverty," he includes this poem to make it clear that he believes not all poverty is necessarily virtuous, and that everyone, despite circumstances otherwise, must strive for self-reliance and the good life.
"be an azad, or free man, like the cypress..." See in text (Economy)
In this last section, Thoreau advocates for people to find their own spiritual paths instead of relying on organized religion. According to Thoreau, organized religion focuses on consoling fears, not nourishing hope. Thoreau quotes Saadi to show how people must live as simply as nature and strive to be like the cypress tree because of its ability to live without encumbrance, work only as much as is necessary, and thrive without excess effort.
"I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau has been trying to establish the different ways that people unknowingly cause themselves harm and distress. Philanthropy, in his view, also spreads despair because one's desire to be philanthropic comes from one's own fears and pains, so providing others with help cures one of such ailments. This is inherently selfish, according to Thoreau. A better model, Thoreau claims, is for philanthropists (and everyone) to take care of themselves and spare others. This will help foster self-reliance.
"If I were to preach at all in this strain, I should say rather, Set about being good..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau claims that charity and philanthropy are not helpful practices, stating that setting out to help others actually harms them because it compromises their self-reliance. Such a statement would earn him some ire from many due to how celebrated charity work typically is (not to mention encouraged by many religions).
"In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely..." See in text (Economy)
One of the angles that Thoreau takes in his overall argument from self reliance is to prove that people work far more than is necessary or healthy. While he believes that work can provide a path to good if it is done correctly, he believes that many people work too much to support themselves for things they do not need. Notice here though that even while he gives advice, Thoreau cautions readers to not take him at his word, but they need to figure out what works best for themselves: "...but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead."
"I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau starts this section with this time frame to provide readers with context for his argument about labor: it should not be done and loved for its own sake. Labor and supporting oneself ought not to be difficult. Thoreau wants to show readers how it is possible to work enough to support oneself while still maximizing personal freedom in order to live the good life.
"trumpery..." See in text (Economy)
An archaic word currently, "trumpery" refers to articles, objects, or even beliefs that are attractive but have little to no value or use. The adjective form describes things that are showy but worthless. Thoreau uses such a word to describe how he feels about the accumulated objects that people acquire throughout their lives, and how reducing such objects would allow them to better live the good life.
"this being very nearly the means with which I started, and the measure of expenses to be incurred..." See in text (Economy)
While readers may have wondered why Thoreau bothered with such detailed record-keeping, his efforts to do this provide proof for his philosophy of self-reliance and simplicity: we can be self-reliant and live simply. The records take the abstract idea and show how Thoreau was able to actualize his plans, showing that he was able to live well and enjoy his time.
"I set up the frame of my house..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau considers building his own house the fundamental symbol of self-reliance. He initially works in solitude, enjoying nature's beauty and singing while he works. He takes great pleasure in being able to repurpose James Collins's dilapidated home, and Thoreau believes that this simple home will be a place where he will be able to better comprehend and pursue a good, meaningful life.
"The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau is trying to illustrate the connection between houses and their purpose; they all have the same function despite their shapes and have been built for the same reasons throughout time. Therefore, his little cellar and home will be just as suitable and purposeful as any "splendid house in the city."
"Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau encourages others to live for themselves, to live simply, and to rely on their own beliefs. This statement reinforces the importance of Thoreau's argument because he shows how many people see what others possess and decide that they must have the same. They do this without questioning why they need such things or the value of them, and this is what causes them such unnecessary strife.
"I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them..." See in text (Economy)
This short story about the Indian can be considered a parable because Thoreau is using it to illustrate a moral lesson. The story represents how being a part of society means that society dictates the kind of work someone does. This is limiting according to Thoreau. His message is to avoid conforming to society's expectations and seek more meaningful work for oneself.
"voluntary poverty..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau names this way of life "voluntary poverty." Since he is looking to solve the problems of how to live, both practically and theoretically, he suggests that voluntarily living in poverty provides the best way of observing the lives of others. Hoping to have his experience at Walden Pond serve as an example to others, Thoreau hopes that his solitude and poverty will inspire others to change their lives.
"No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof..." See in text (Economy)
This line and the following support Thoreau's theme of self-reliance. He claims that knowledge from others should not be accepted as truth without rational proof, and that everyone should trust their own moral compass in determining what works best for themselves. Note how Thorea strongly advocates questioning authority, power, and received "wisdom."
"Wilberforce..." See in text (Economy)
William Wilberforce was a British politician, social activist, and a fierce opponent of the slave trade. His efforts brought about the end of the slave trade in the West Indies in 1807. Thoreau invokes Wilberforce here much in the same way he did Iolanaus earlier: the common people do not have champions or help to assist with their issues, and they must rely on themselves.
"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..." See in text (Economy)
In Walden, Thoreau builds on the philosophy of transcendentalism that was most famously described in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance." In that essay, Emerson established a set of ideals for living that combined abstract philosophy with practical advice. Walden builds on these ideas. Interestingly, Emerson owned the land that he allowed Thoreau to built his house on. The ideals that both of these men espouse in their works is for people to have unfailing trust in themselves and confidence in their abilities, preferring individuality to conformity.
"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things..." See in text (Economy)
Here again Thoreau emphasizes simplicity over progress by stating that the items we create are less likely to truly serve us spiritually and enable us from leading the good life.
"All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be...." See in text (Economy)
Part of establishing his view of what a good life entails involves criticism of society. In this passage, he has targeted clothing as a representation of how society's social restraints cause more harm to those within it. Slavishly following new fashions, Thoreau claims, is one of the problems that so many people face in society because it takes them away from their true selves. Clothing emphasizes social differences and exacerbates financial difficulties. This creates distance between their inner self and desires.
"A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in; for him the old will do, that has lain dusty in the garret for an indeterminate period..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau claims that Clothing does far more harm than good; many people fear that they will be judged on the basis of their clothing. He says that this worry makes pristine clothing more valuable than a clean conscience. In this passage we see Thoreau propose that people should choose their clothing based on utility and simplicity rather than fashion. These claims not only support his theme of seeking the Good Life, but they also support the theme of preferring simplicity over so-called "progress."
"With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau begins to advocate here, and throughout Walden, for the value of simplicity in achieving what he will call the "Good Life." This statement exemplifies this idea, that the wisest of people have even less than the poor. Thoreau arrived at this statement by saying that all of the luxuries of life do more than their basic function; rather than keeping us warm, they "cook" us. This fire metaphor describes how damaging Thoreau believes unnecessary things to be to the well-being of humankind.
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation...." See in text (Economy)
According to Thoreau, the quiet desperation that afflicts so many people occurs because they have forgotten that they can choose how to conduct their own lives. He builds on this claim shortly by saying that people trust the wisdom of older generations, but that received wisdom doesn't apply to everyone. Being open to change and finding the right way to live for oneself is paramount to Thoreau's views.
"What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate...." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau claims that many people needlessly work to the point that they cannot enjoy life. He specifically addresses the poor in this passage and compares worrying about one's debt and fear of money to slavery. Claiming that "self-emancipation" is necessary, Thoreau states that self-reliance and simplicity are ways to achieve this. These calls also reveal his criticism of the nature of work for many, establishing that people must rely on themselves and their self-perception to better understand life's purpose.
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
"dead reckoning..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
The term “dead reckoning” refers to a method of navigation that relies on guesses, estimates, and records of previous ventures, rather than precise figures, to locate a destination or target. Dead reckoning was used for sailing, although it was quite dangerous, until it was replaced by more accurate instruments, such as radar. Thoreau uses this term here to compare the dangers and distractions of a “modern” life in the 19th century to a ship sailing by “dead reckoning,” or without direction.
"I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
Thoreau asks us to wake up fully and "elevate [our lives] by conscious endeavor." He states that it is our duty to make every moment of life meaningful. Recall how Thoreau stated that he went to the woods to live deliberately. For him, faith in simplicity is the path to spiritual wakefulness. This philosophy of transcendentalism details his spiritual aims: self-reliance and its inherent simplicity are the ways Thoreau uses to achieve his goals.
"itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
The Iliad and the Odyssey are attributed to the Greek poet Homer. Thoreau efficiently captures the main subjects of both of Homer's works in this tight phrase: the wrath of Achilles (Iliad) and the wanderings of Odysseus (Odyssey). Thoreau's intention here is to awaken his readers to the power of ordinary events. Flying insects don't normally awaken a sense of fascination with the natural world, but they live in a world alien to many humans due to how they experience life. Thoreau notices them to show Nature's beautiful and powerful intricacies.
"The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
This quote speaks volumes to Thoreau's intention in writing Walden. The meaning of "morning" should be carefully considered, as the metaphor Thoreau invokes here reinforces why he went into the woods to live at Walden Pond: to discover self-reliance, and to be closer to nature.
"Such was not my abode, for I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
Thoreau tells us that his house is still unfinished, but in characteristic fashion he informs us that this is perfectly desirable for him. The unfinished house is more a part of nature, with the wind blowing through it and the company of birds, which allows him to experience being one with nature, rather than separated from it by closed doors. This bit of evidence further refines and adds to one of Thoreau's themes of humans needing to live closer to nature.
"As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
This statement reinforces Thoreau's claims about the necessity for self-reliance. Possessions act as commitments to one's time and can also act as a burden on one's financial status. This can lead to debt or other troubles, and Thoreau believes that avoiding such things can help one live a freer, more truthful existence.
"I found thus that I had been a rich man without any damage to my poverty..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
Having entertained the possibility of buying many farms, Thoreau almost acquires the Hollowell Farm, but then the farmer's wife changed her mind. Thoreau talks about the virtues the farm has, but ultimately he is content to have kept his poverty and not acquired it, because he believes the best part of the farm is the beauty of the landscape, which he can enjoy for free. Thoreau values being close to nature, and he claims that the most important part when choosing a home is that the location allows one to enjoy nature. Possessing a house is something Thoreau must deal with in order to live in or near his preferred landscape.
"but to my eyes the village was too far from it...." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
This is subtle, but notice the distinct change in perspective between this clause and the preceding one: Thoreau prefers to think of the house as the central focal point rather than the village, emphasizing his preference for living in a space that allows him to contemplate and be separate from society.
""You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass—the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends."..." See in text (The Village)
This passage is an excerpt from Chinese philosopher Confucius's Analects. The central idea of the passage is one Thoreau has touched upon throughout the chapter: people need less governance and fewer resources than they commonly think.
""How happy's he who hath due place assigned To his beasts and disafforested his mind! . . . . . . . Can use this horse, goat, wolf, and ev'ry beast, And is not ass himself to all the rest! Else man not only is the herd of swine, But he's those devils too which did incline Them to a headlong rage, and made them worse."..." See in text (Higher Laws)
These lines are drawn from John Donne's (1572–1631) poem “To Sir Edward Herbert.” The topic is that of sensuality, which Thoreau sees as a single human phenomenon that stands as the polar opposite to purity. The Donne poem uses the metaphor of animals as the baser, or more instinctual, impulses of the human psyche. In a clever use of language, Donne recommends that one “disafforest” the mind. That is to say, one is rewarded for removing the forest where the animals of instinct and carnality dwell. This discussion ties into one of Thoreau’s broader questions in “Walden”: how ought we to live? For Thoreau, the life of the body is an important moral consideration.
"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer...." See in text (Conclusion)
Complaining of his society’s mediocrity and devotion to ignorance, Thoreau asks why his fellows have allowed their minds to deteriorate to such levels. He claims that humanity should resist conformity, seek out new ways, and allow achievement to develop on a personalized level. Furthermore, he states that for this to happen, society itself must not rebuke those who follow their own paths. The metaphor Thoreau employs in this line emphasizes the different rhythms that one may follow as she seeks her own path.
"the source of the Nile, or the Niger, or the Mississippi, or a Northwest Passage..." See in text (Conclusion)
Thoreau is referring to the Nile, Niger, and Mississippi rivers as well as the Northwest Passage because they have been historical mysteries for explorers, whom he names shortly. In contrast to the physical explorations performed by these men, Thoreau wants his readers to explore their own “higher latitudes,” or their own motivations and inclinations. These, he considers, are more important and mysterious than exploring the earth.