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Collected by Zack Smith in 2003, then
edited slightly in 2009.
These are quotations from Henry David Thoreau's classic work Walden,
about his life in the woods and the wisdom he gained from his experiences.
Some of these quotes are very good, some are merely handy.
I can't say that Thoreau was right about everything,
but one never gains wisdom by limiting one's sources of knowledge.
But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.
Much it concerns a man, forsooth, how a few sticks are slanted over him or under him, and what colors are daubed upon his box. It would signify somewhat, in an earnest sense, if he slanted them and daubed it; but the spirit having departed out of the tenant, it is of a piece with constructing his own coffin ... and "carpenter" is but another name for "coffin-maker".
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation ... But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince.
Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave ... One piece of good sense is more memorable than a monument as high as the moon.
As for the pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.
[Vast bank bailouts are the pyramids of our time. -ZS]
A man is not a good man to me because he will feed me if I should be starving, or warm me if I should be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one ... Philanthropy is not love for one's fellow low-man in the broadest sense ... I never heard of a philanthropic meeting in which it was sincerely proposed to do any good for me, or the like of me.
There are a thousand [men] hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.
You boast of spending a tenth part of your income on charity; maybe you should spend the nine tenths so, and be done with it.
Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudging of some servitor, are not awakened by our newly acquired force and aspirations from within ... instead of factory bells.
That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.
All memorable events ... transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say "All intelligences awake in the morning." Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour.
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, and only 1 in a 100 million for a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
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 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, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
We live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men ... it is error upon error and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occassion a superfluous and evitable(?) wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail.
Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature ... with unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses.
Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive let us go about our business.
I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them, for that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked -- goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot.
Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.
Any prospect of awakening or coming to life to a dead man makes indifferent all times and places.
It is life near the bone where it is sweetest.
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 one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams ... he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.