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Henry David Thoreau

Page history last edited by Don Pogreba 11 years, 8 months ago

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)



Quick Biography of HDT

  • Grew up and spent most of his life in Concord, MA
  • Attended Harvard, where he was exposed to the works and teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, his chief mentor and friend
  • Little academic work after  his graduation-- worked in a pencil shop and taught briefly
  • In 1845, built a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond
  • Lived there for two years 
  • Wished to live deliberately and "suck all of the marrow out of life"
  • Emerson's funeral speech about Thoreau: "I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this (that is, lacking ambition) instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at teh end of years, it is still only beans!"
  • Emerson was wrong; his misunderstood Thoreau's purpose. His goal was not to engineer for America, but to re-engineer her
  • Emerson failed to see the lasting impact that Thoreau would have; now Thoreau is probably more influential than Emerson
  • Most famous works are Walden and On Civil Disobedience but critics are beginning to read his 20 volume journals as an interesting source of material.



  •  Eliminate material complexity
  • Complexity exists for its own sake -- a cycle that never ends
  • Desire for complexity comes from desire for status, a belief that it is actually more simple, and to fill emptiness
  • Complexity stems from artificial desire, contrasted with real desire -- food, air, transcendence, shelter
  • Cornerstone of HDT's philosophy: "Simplify, Simplify!"
  • "The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under the several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel; for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success." --HDT


Approach Nature Deliberately 

  • Spend one day as deliberately as nature--don't answer bells, whistles, alarms. Nature is calm, its music soothing, and its rhythms are not artificial. Human needs and desires can wait.
  • The rush and noise of our lives is what separates us from ourselves.
  • Nature is more than beautiful; it is pure. The pond has the characteristics of The Creator, a person can get no closer to heaven than by being in Nature
  • "Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her." --HDT


Nature as the Salvation of Society

  • Adopted from the romantic world view, HDT believed that nature held the key to restoring humans to them selves -- curing the ailments that society inflicted on them.
  • Belief in a dynamic ecology -- one that is constantly changing, one that we can learn from through observation and attention. Thoreau did not believe in a static state of nature, but in a nature that constantly evolves and grows.
  • Connected to the transcendental belief at atman, the oversoul. All things are connected in a shared soul.
  • J. Baird Callicot argues that, because of Thoreau, "nature in America went from demonized to divinized and the American population of European descent went from God's errand runners into the hideous and howling wilderness to sinful and depraved despoilers of God's beautiful creation."
  • Thoreau believed that in conservation of nature, for its own sake and for ours: "Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation."
  • "From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind" --HDt 



  • Thoreau's basic argument is one for conservation, which is an ethic of resource use, allocation, exploitation, and protection. Its primary focus is upon maintaining the health of the natural world: its forests, fisheries, habitats, and biological diversity. Secondary focus is on materials conservation and energy conservation, which are seen as important to protect the natural world.
  • HDT believed that all aspects of life could benefit the natural environment -- from farmers to environmental thinkers. Each should manage and plan her actions to ensure the preservation of wild areas.  


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