Henry David Thoreau Philosophy Summary

If you want to know more about Thoreau’s thinking, maybe it’s simply a matter of treading his footsteps, in the nature closest to his home, the one that will seem most familiar to us, so we perhaps we would have an idea that would be closer to his philosophy, bathed in visual, auditory and tactile sensations. Thus, to sniff and touch the grass of this or that meadow, to be moved by the zephyr caressing the wheat and thrills the branches of the trees in an intoxicating musicality, one would try, despite the ridiculous pastiche, to approach what Thoreau was: a simple man, a scholar who gave up teaching to devote himself to a life of geometer, well anchored in his native land. A loafer of everyday life that takes us on his philosophical walks, at the height of man, at the height of a Thoreau fascinated by the here and now.

Here are some themes important to Thoreau, which constitute the relief of his reflection, especially in his Journal, which traces 24 years of his life since his 20 years. The diary began in 1837 when he resigned from his teaching post and began his new philosophical life at Concord under Ralph Waldo Emerson, becoming his disciple. This diary extends to the end of his life, almost, since it will keep it updated until 1861. Beyond his prodigious talent to describe the nature he walks during his walks (descriptions of animals, but also shrubs, flowers and other elements of the flora), there are also more transcendent or even “transcendental” elements.


He regularly criticizes a society based on work and money. It aspires more simplicity, simplicity that would focus on real wealth inherent in man and essential and not speculative and cumbersome. “They think I’m lazy. I think they work for money, “I’m convinced that men are not busy, that’s not the way to spend a day. ” He refers, moreover, to minimalism in his way of life, even poverty that leads him to enjoy more fully the few objects he has. According to him, poverty is the instrument of freedom because it keeps us from dependence on objects, money and therefore the system based on work. Beyond a sustained criticism of the mode of operation of society, he advances to desire something else for man: he emits, as a forerunner, the wish of a society liberated from the yoke of labour.

“A spacious margin of leisure is as beautiful in a man’s life as in a book. Hasty work, spoiled work, and it is not less true in life than in the domestic economy. Keep the pace, watch the hours of the universe, not the trains. What are seventy years lived in haste and approximation, in comparison with those moments of divine leisure where your life coincides with that of the universe? “


Thoreau reproaches the intellectuals for living cut off from their emotions and sensations, cut off from their deep nature, which deprives them of the joy of living simply. “I believe these prose writers, with their choice of laws and sayings, do not know how happy a man can be. He fears this tendency for himself in these terms: “I fear that over the years my knowledge will become more specialized and scientific; that in exchange for views as wide as the expanse of the sky, I am not limited to the field of the microscope”. He repeatedly evokes a complementary use of our different bits of intelligence:

“The body, the senses, must conspire with the mind. Thoreau believes experience as the foundation of our knowledge: “I am not interested in simple phenomena, even the explosion of a planet, as long as they have not passed through the experience of a human being. “

According to Thoreau, knowledge is acquired without the need for the intermediary of the educational institution. Let’s remember here that he gave up teaching early and only occasionally gave lectures, a vain exercise according to him. He dreams of a world where children, instead of going to school, go to the forest to discover nature and pick blueberries. His posture is reminiscent of that of Ivan Illich, criticizing the school institution in the 1970s: “We are all schoolmasters, and our school is the universe”.


Thoreau calls for action and encourages men to work for their well-being first and to use their energy in the implementation of their thought: “What I started reading, I must finish it in acting. For him, there is no “little work”: “But let the lame man shake his leg and trace his race to that of the fastest man. So he will do what is in his power to do. The prestige of a gesture is measured by the way one appreciates it, hence the importance of cultivating one’s interiority in order to have one’s own scales: “Great thoughts sanctify any task. The fact of thinking in oneself is not enough, it is about acting, on this ground fertilized by the thought: “For me, the moment has come to sow. For too long I stayed fallow. ”


Thoreau regularly criticizes the clerical institution and revokes the existence of a God as he conceives it, he is not free from spirituality, and readily believes in the existence of divine powers linked to the elements of nature. . Belief in God is for him an obstacle to the free disposition of himself and his spirit, he articulates his atheism with an exhortation to enjoy the present moment, here and now: “We must not postpone anything. Take the opportunity by the hair. Now or never! It is necessary to live in the present, to launch oneself on each wave, to find one’s eternity in each moment. The idiots remain confined to the island of their possibilities and look towards another land. But there is no other land; there is no other life than this one or one like it. ”

In his Journal, we see some contours of his thought on certain political subjects such as the condemnation of slavery, his rejection of institutions (clerical, political, intellectual and cultural, scientific), his interest in Indians ( culture, history, relationship to nature) and finally, and above all!, its visceral struggle for the protection of animals and nature (condemnation of the fur trade and preservation of forests, in particular).

It is obvious that I have tried to extract the essence from the Thoreau’s works in order to deliver here some elements which, far from being exhaustive, make it possible to briefly expose a thought which he has not stopped writing and rewriting over the seasons of his life, but with undeniable consistency both in themes and in his approach to the world.

Cite this article as: Tim, "Henry David Thoreau Philosophy Summary, August 21, 2019, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, August 21, 2019, https://www.the-philosophy.com/thoreau-philosophy-summary.