Henry David Thoreau tells us that “all good things are wild and free.”
These words are found in his lecture “Walking,” which he delivered numerous times, beginning in 1851. The connection between wildness and freedom is seen throughout Thoreau’s writing. To him, the good life required balancing the civilized and the wild, and his idea of nature informs his idea of liberty.
For Thoreau, the wild holds numerous individual and social benefits. It is a place where a person can discover and renew oneself. It is a place that allows for experimentation. It is a place that can bring radical regeneration or even a restructuring of society. Thoreau’s life in the Walden Woods, though he was somewhat isolated, was a kind of social experiment that he conducted on himself. Its goal was personal as well as social regeneration.
Thoreau’s views of wildness and freedom underlie his original and relevant libertarian philosophy. It is individualist and social. It is grounded in an understanding of nature and a desire to or figure out one’s place within it. Thoreau’s belief in acting on principles also gave him a practical attitude toward political violence and helped him make a persuasive case for peaceful revolution.
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.
With nature there is an absolute freedom, which is not the same as a freedom merely civil. It is of vital importance to retain an element of wildness.
I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated; part will be tillage, but the greater part will be meadow and forest…
Balancing culture and wild was seen early in Thoreau’s life. He was born on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. As a boy he excelled in academics as well as wandering. In Walden he describes hunting and fishing as important parts of his education. While he continued to fish, he began to think of hunting as something good for boys so long as they outgrew it. Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837. He soon began discussing philosophy among the Transcendentalists, who were centered in Concord around Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also explored nature, often with his brother John until John’s death in 1842.
For Thoreau, the wild is source of vigor and strength. He says “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” and “from the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.”
Nature was something to study and be inspired by, but most importantly to experience. The essay is called “Walking” after all.
In Walden, Thoreau describes nature as satisfying a need for infinite discovery.
At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor…
We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
Thoreau chose a natural setting for his life at Walden Pond. This was to be an experiment and a source of regeneration.
In late March of 1845 he began building a cabin near the shore of Walden pond, just outside Concord. He moved into the cabin on July 4 and would live there for about two years and two months.
The experimental purpose of this living situation becomes clear in first chapter of Walden, titled “Economy,” where Thoreau described his living expenses and needs. The second chapter “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” gives a fairly direct answer.
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.
He wants to live deliberately — to be less carried away by the affairs of others and follow his own way, partly so he can have a quiet space to write. He wants to deal with the essential facts of life — a process of discovery. He wants to learn — to see what he will find living closer to nature. And he wants to live — to not only know what life was about but to experience it.
Thoreau intends to cut away the details to get to the real substance of life, 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.”
This brings up Emerson’s idea of having an “original relation to the universe.” Thoreau did not try to go back to primitive origins, but tried to take the fruits of civilization to arrange them in an original way, to make an original combination. He got Emerson’s permission to use part of his land, bought scrapwood and secondhand windows, cut pines with a borrowed ax, built himself a cabin, and planted two and a half acres, mostly with beans. This was not an experiment in primitive living, but an experimental setup to improve modern living.
As Gandhi said, “Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practise in himself.”
Simplicity is important for Thoreau. It helps him discover the essential facts of life and maintain control of his life to enable space for discovery.
Simplicity is at the heart of the social dimension of the Walden project. In Walden, Thoreau denounces luxury and excess — perhaps excessively so, but it is instructive. An ambition to simplify balances the ambition for expansion and accumulation.
In the conclusion of Walden, he writes,
I leaned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours…
In proportion as one simplifies his life, “the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”
Simplicity had a political dimension for Thoreau. “Civil Disobedience” contains a passage describing how it is easier to live a principled life when one has less property for the government to steal. But Thoreau goes further.
But the rich man — not to make any invidious comparison — is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend it. Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet. The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the “means” are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor.
In Walden, he describes how he didn’t lock his door, but left his cabin open to visitors. Despite being outdoors often he only ever missed one thing: a small volume of Homer’s writing.
I am convinced that if all men were to live as simply as I did then, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.
A lot hinges on the phase “as I did then,” since he then lived in experimental circumstances.
Near the beginning of the book he cautions,
I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; 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.
Thoreau gains a sense of liberation and truth from his life in the woods. It was part of his self-emancipation from the quiet desperation of conformity and overwork. It was also an opportunity to discover his sense of self as well his as connections with the rest of the world, an inspiring prospect.
Individualist and Social
For most of Thoreau’s life, he lived with other people, either with his family at Emerson’s home. During his 26 months at Walden he lived alone, but he often met with other people.
Walden notes that Thoreau’s cabin was about a mile and a half south of Concord. This was not a major trek for a proud saunterer like Thoreau, who remarked that “every day or two” he strolled to the village. Walden also recounts many visitors to the woods: woodchoppers, icecutters, hunters, escaped slaves, and good friends.
Thoreau’s cabin was perfectly placed on the fringes of civilization where culture and nature met. He was close enough to participate in the social life of nearby towns but far enough away to study nature and to be considered odd by many contemporaries.
Many people seem to not understand this about Walden. They have an idea of an isolated, possibly misanthropic hermit who would disapprove of anyone who came near his secluded home. And if they find out that he did not live in the middle of nowhere, which he never claimed to, then he gets branded a big phony. Sometimes a big deal is made of him having meals with his family in Concord, but considering Thoreau’s contributions to the family pencil-making business over his lifetime, his obvious skill at craftsmanship, and the meals that he served visitors at Walden, his alleged mooching appears to actually be a sign of social involvement and reciprocity.
Thoreau was a social individualist who hoped that his discoveries could be applied by others who wished to live better lives. While he did want to have some quiet writing space at Walden, he was not seeking to cut off society but to find ways to improve it. The nearby wild afforded him the liberty and the clarity of vision to see life in a new way.
Thoreau expresses outrage against injustice as crime against humanity and an offense against nature.
He delivered an address called “Slavery in Massachusetts” at an anti-slavery celebration in Massachusetts on July 4, 1854, shortly after a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns was convicted in Boston.
Again it happens that the Boston Court-House is full of armed men, holding prisoner and trying a MAN, to find out if he is not really a SLAVE. Does any one think that justice or God awaits Mr. Loring’s decision? For him to sit there deciding still, when this question is already decided from eternity to eternity, and the unlettered slave himself and the multitude around have long since heard and assented to the decision, is simply to make himself ridiculous. We may be tempted to ask from whom he received his commission, and who he is that received it; what novel statutes he obeys, and what precedents are to him of authority. Such an arbiter’s very existence is an impertinence. We do not ask him to make up his mind, but to make up his pack.
It is not surprising that Thoreau would be outraged by the maintenance of slavery. He was a man of principle who had personally experienced the humanity of slaves in the course of his activities in the Underground Railroad. But his understanding of nature underlies the way in which he expresses outrage. The whole trial is an absurdity. The question of whether the accused is a man or a slave has already been decided. The unlettered slave has assented to the decision, and the judge looks ridiculous when he refuses to assent to it. Later in the address Thoreau says that it would make as much sense for the government to declare a man a sausage as it would to declare him a slave.
He does not spare the State of Massachusetts from its responsibility for this outrage.
Massachusetts sat waiting Mr. Loring’s decision, as if it could in any way affect her own criminality. Her crime, the most conspicuous and fatal crime of all, was permitting him to be the umpire in such a case. It was really the trial of Massachusetts. Every moment that she hesitated to set this man free — every moment that she now hesitates to atone for her crime, she is convicted.
Thoreau is so outraged that even his walks are affected.
The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.
Thoreau cannot help but plot murder against the state. But being Thoreau, he cheers up when he sees a certain flower, and he celebrates the white water lily as a symbol of purity and sweetness that can rise from slime and muck.
Thoreau’s political views are rooted in conscience, something that resides in the individual but is often concerned with the treatment of others. “Civil Disobedience,” his most influential political work, is thoroughly individualist and grounded in social responsibility and justice.
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?
Once again, Thoreau is resting his case on an appeal to nature: each person has a conscience and there is no reason for him to disregard it and let the legislator decide things instead. He is not saying that it is “human nature” to act a certain way, but he is encouraging his audience to choose to embrace and exercise a characteristic that is within their nature.
But what to do then?
It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.
The only time Thoreau met with the government face to face was when it taxed him.
My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with — for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel — and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government. How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace, and see if he can get over this obstruction to his neighborliness without a ruder and more impetuous thought or speech corresponding with his action?
Individuals acting on their consciences is at the heart of Thoreau’s idea of peaceful revolution.
If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.
Peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. This is direct action which Thoreau understood through practice. “Civil Disobedience” was written about Thoreau’s own experience refusing to pay a poll tax that he saw as supporting slavery and an aggressive war to expand slavery into territory captured from Mexico. He was imprisoned for a day until someone else, probably a relative, paid the tax.
But Civil Disobedience continues.
But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.
Thoreau’s willingness to accept violence is consistent with his later impassioned defense of John Brown’s attempted insurrection in 1859.
I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment!”
Thoreau defended Brown’s raid at a time when many — including many abolitionists — considered Brown too extreme, even insane, and disassociated from him. Thoreau compared Brown’s execution to Christ’s martyrdom. Revolutionary War heroes Ethan Allen and John Stark were less impressive, for they “could bravely face their country’s foes,” but Brown “had the courage to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong.”
It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him… I shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his method who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave.
Even Walden is not free from references to violence, though they may be wrapped in humor.
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.
This is the kind of degradation that the tonic of nature is supposed to prevent. It is easier to lose one’s freedom when there is no wildness to develop in.
Thoreau’s references to manhood and manliness should not pass without notice. There has to be good feminist analyses of Thoreau’s writing, but it does not come up often. One has to wonder how women fit into Thoreau’s worldview, especially since his mother and sisters were involved in the Underground Railroad. The answers are probably found within his voluminous journals. He does remark in “Walking” that, “How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know.” Presumably, women, like men, should follow their own way and not the ways of their fathers, mothers, or neighbors, as Thoreau counseled in Walden.
Thoreau does show a practical attitude toward violence: violence is undesirable but not always evil. One of his most enduring contributions to political thought is his advocacy of a peaceful revolution and description of a means to carry it out: the citizen refuses allegiance, and the officer resigns his office. Thoreau was certainly not the first philosopher to advocate for a peaceful revolution through withdrawing consent, but he did make the idea accessible to an English-speaking audience and strengthened it with concrete examples drawn from his personal experience. Perhaps Thoreau’s practical attitude and explanation, rooted in his own experience, allowed him to make a more convincing case.
Thoreau discusses his political views most fully in Civil Disobedience, an 1849 essay originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government.”
He begins with a very libertarian statement.
I heartily accept the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
While Thoreau does not draw out a plan to prepare for government which governs not at all, his repeated appeals to conscience suggest that it requires a broad shift in principles. Experiencing the wild, of course, is an important part of individual and social improvement. After Thoreau is released from prison, he finds himself in a party of huckleberry pickers. Soon they are “in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.”
Government was “an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone.” Yet it more often interfered with people and commerce, and the good things accomplished in America were due to the character of American society.
But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.
Regardless of how immediately one would ask for no government, one can appreciate Thoreau’s practicality: having no government is a worthwhile thing to strive for, but in the meantime it would be nice if the government did not start wars, hunt down innocent people to haul them to slavery, and threaten to kill anyone who resisted.
Yet Thoreau’s genuine radicalism can inspire libertarians, whether or not they be of the no-government variety. Resisting the poll tax was one example of his practice of direct action. Resisting slavery was a family activity for the Thoreaus, and Henry’s thorough knowledge of the region’s woods and his knack for navigation were probably quite valuable in guiding slaves northward.
In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau criticized those who talked about distant and potential evils while ignoring nearby existing evils. He is dismayed that they talk about the possibility of Nebraska allowing slavery, yet did little to stop fugitive slaves being hauled back to slavery by Massachusetts militia and United States Marines.
He decries the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom won in the battle of Concord just after a man was taken back to slavery.
Three years ago, also, just a week after the authorities of Boston assembled to carry back a perfectly innocent man, and one whom they knew to be innocent, into slavery, the inhabitants of Concord caused the bells to be rung and the cannons to be fired, to celebrate their liberty — and the courage and love of liberty of their ancestors who fought at the bridge.
Thoreau encouraged his audience to not limit political action to the ballot.
The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls — the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.
Thoreau’s view of freedom included liberation from excessive work.
In “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau condemns overwork and obsession with business.
If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!
Within a chapter of Walden focused on his own labors, Thoreau questions the factory system and dreads the conditions of workers.
I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.
Walden also describes Thoreau advocating a simple life to an Irish immigrant farm worker nearby.
[I]n an hour or two, without labor, but as recreation, I could, if I wished, catch as many fish as I should want for two days, or earn enough money to support me a week. If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a-huckleberrying in the summer for their amusement.
Thoreau’s own labors were many and varied. He worked in the family pencil business, as a handyman, and as a surveyor. He seems to favor honest, quality work that the worker can enjoy with plenty of time for other pursuits. His defense of leisure time predates a number of labor leaders and social commentators. His ideas of useful, quality work and opposition toward the factory system could be connected with earlier sentiments popular among artisans resisting “proletarianization,” but in “Walking, Thoreau wonders about artisans who can sit at the workbench all day.
How can one enjoy simple, independent living like Thoreau did at Walden when you have no land to plant your beans? Thoreau understood that the land he used was borrowed from a friend and did consider the question of land, but did not explore it in depth. In Walden he suggests that it is better to live in a box than be harassed by a landlord.
“Walking” attacks the type of land enclosures that obstruct wandering.
At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, — when fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.
On September 6, 1847, Thoreau left his cabin at Walden, and went back to living in Concord.
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to life, and could not spare any more time for that one.
Once he accomplished what he set out to do at Walden, Thoreau began on different paths of discovery and advocacy. He continued to live deliberately, taking frequent long walks, studying nature in increasing detail, and speaking against slavery, hypocrisy, and conformity. He began to study Native American culture in his later years and compiled many pages of notes on the subject. In late 1860 he caught bronchitis, which combined with his tuberculosis to seriously damage his health. Yet he continued to explore and examine nature. He died on May 6, 1862, leaving behind literary treasures for contemporaries and future generations.
Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were inspired by Civil Disobedience and respected the authenticity that Thoreau’s experience enabled him to bring to his writing. Thoreau’s life and advocacy for nature have earned him a fair claim to the title of “father of environmentalism” which some have bestowed upon him. Today the depth of Thoreau’s writing and actions counsel us to explore ourselves, to understand the world around us, and to live deliberate lives of freedom.
The above essay is adapted from notes for a presentation at the Alternatives Expo, delivered February 23, 2013 in Nashua, NH.
 Thoreau, Henry David, “Walking.” The Atlantic, June 1862. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1862/06/walking/304674/
Thoreau’s Walking – With Annotated Text. The Thoreau Reader. http://thoreau.eserver.org/walking.html
 Thoreau, Henry David, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, ed. Jonathan Levin. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. 192.
 Thoreau, “Walking.” http://thoreau.eserver.org/walking2.html
 Thoreau, Walden, 286.
 Thoreau, Walden, 85.
 Thoreau, Henry David, “Civil Disobedience.” The Thoreau Reader. http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil.html
 Thoreau, Walden 291-292
 Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience.” Part 2 of 3. The Thoreau Reader.
 Thoreau, Walden, 158. Thoreau “was never molested by any person but those who represented the state.”
 Thoreau, Walden, 67.
 Thoreau, Walden, 81,154. In “Walking” Thoreau discusses the word “saunterer” and admires its possible etymologies.
 Thoreau’s Slavery in Massachusetts with Annotated Text. The Thoreau Reader. http://thoreau.eserver.org/slavery.html
 Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience.” http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil.html
 Thoreau, Henry David, “A Plea For Captain John Brown.” The Thoreau Reader. http://thoreau.eserver.org/plea.html
 Thoreau, Walden, 55.
 “Was Thoreau involved in the Underground Railroad?” The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. About Thoreau: Frequently Asked Questions. http://thoreau.library.ucsb.edu/thoreau_faq.html
 Thoreau, “Walking.” http://thoreau.eserver.org/walking1.html
 Notably, Étienne de La Boétie wrote the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude in 16th Century France, though there are reasonable questions about the essay’s authorship. http://aaeblog.com/2008/08/14/who-wrote-the-discourse-on-voluntary-servitude/
 Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience.” Part 1 of 3. http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil1.html
 Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience.” Part 3 of 3. http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil3.html
 Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience.” Part 1 of 3. http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil1.html
 An interesting question to explore would be to what extent Thoreau’s reading of Chinese philosophy influenced his choice of words in Civil Disobedience. A government which governs not at all sounds similar to Lao Tzu’s advice to rulers to let the people govern themselves as much as possible. Thoreau may have been familiar with Taoist writing.
See Tao Te Ching, Chapter 57 (http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html#57) and David T.Y. Ch’en, “Thoreau and Taoism” (http://transcendentalism.tamu.edu/hdt-tao).
 Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts. The Thoreau Reader. http://thoreau.eserver.org/slavery.html
 Thoreau, Henry David, “Life Without Principle.” The Thoreau Reader. http://thoreau.eserver.org/life1.html
 Thoreau, Walden, 28.
 Thoreau, Walden, 187.
 Thoreau, Walden, 30.
 Thoreau, “Walking.” Part 1 of 3. http://thoreau.eserver.org/walking1.html
Note that Swedish custom contains an idea known as allemansrätten, that it is every man’s right to wander even on privately-owned land, within limitations meant to prevent disruptive or destructive behavior.
 Thoreau, Walden, 291.