Henry David Thoreau

He was an American essayist, a poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian. He was born July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts, and given the name David Henry, but would later change it to Henry David as he felt it sounded more like a writer. He died May 6, 1862, also in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 45 years old at the time of his death.

His well-known essays were Civil Disobedience and Life Without Principle. He was educated at the Concord Academy and Harvard University.

How Emerson Influenced Thoreau

Ralph Waldo Emerson significantly influenced Henry David Thoreau, both personally and intellectually. Emerson, a leading transcendentalist of his time, played a pivotal role in Thoreau’s life, guiding him in his philosophical and literary endeavors. Here are some key aspects of Emerson’s influence on Thoreau:

  1. Mentorship and Personal Support: Emerson acted as a mentor to Thoreau after they met in 1837. Emerson took a keen interest in Thoreau’s potential, encouraging him to develop his ideas and to write. Emerson even allowed Thoreau to live with his family for a time, providing him with intellectual and moral support and practical assistance, such as access to his library.
  2. Introduction to Transcendentalism: Emerson introduced Thoreau to the principles of Transcendentalism. This philosophical movement emphasized the inherent goodness of people and nature and the supremacy of individual intuition and the spiritual over the material. Thoreau embraced these ideas, central to his philosophy and writings.
  3. Nature and Environmentalism: Emerson’s deep appreciation for nature profoundly influenced Thoreau. Emerson’s essay “Nature” (1836) is often considered a foundational work of American environmental thought and deeply impacted Thoreau. The Nature Essay led Thoreau to explore his ideas about nature further, culminating in works such as “Walden,” where he documented his experiment in simple living close to nature.
  4. Civil Disobedience and Social Reform: Emerson’s essays and lectures on social reform and individualism influenced Thoreau’s thoughts on civil disobedience. Although Thoreau would develop his distinct approach to these issues, Emerson’s emphasis on individual conscience and the moral obligation to resist unjust laws paved the way for Thoreau’s famous essay, “Civil Disobedience.” This work argued for nonviolent resistance to immoral government actions and has inspired numerous social activists since.
  5. Literary Influence: Beyond philosophy, Emerson influenced Thoreau’s literary style and career. Emerson encouraged Thoreau to write and publish his works, and Thoreau was a regular contributor to “The Dial,” a transcendentalist magazine that Emerson edited. Emerson’s support helped Thoreau gain exposure as a writer and thinker.
  6. Philosophical Dialogues: Their relationship was characterized by intellectual exchange and debate, helping to refine Thoreau’s thoughts on individuality, democracy, and nature. Despite their occasional disagreements, this discourse contributed significantly to the development of Thoreau’s ideas and writings.
Ralph Waldo Emerson significantly influenced Henry David Thoreau

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a crucial figure in Thoreau’s life, providing him with intellectual guidance, personal support, and literary opportunities. Through their friendship and philosophical engagements, Emerson’s influence on Thoreau was profound, shaping his thoughts, writings, and the legacy he left behind.

And here are summaries of his two most known works which are currently listed in on the site. I think these will greatly help those who want to know more about Thoreau and I find it interesting is he criticizes people for being more focused on making money than they are focused on personal integrity. It seems nothing has changed in the world!

Civil Disobedience (1849)

In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau argues for the importance of individual conscience over the dictates of laws and government policies, especially when those laws and policies are unjust. This essay was a response to his imprisonment for refusing to pay a poll tax, which he considered to support slavery and the Mexican-American War, both of which he opposed.

  • Personal Integrity over Compliance: Thoreau emphasizes staying true to one’s moral principles, even when they conflict with the state’s laws.
  • Nonviolent Resistance: He advocates for nonviolent resistance to oppose and effect change against unjust government practices.
  • Critique of Government: Thoreau is critical of any government that infringes upon the individual’s moral autonomy and argues that sometimes the best government is the one that governs the least.
  • Moral Responsibility of Individuals: He believes individuals have a moral responsibility to resist and not participate in injustice, even in a democratic society.
  • Influence on Social and Political Movements: This work has profoundly influenced global civil rights and social justice movements, inspiring leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

Life Without Principle (1863)

“Life Without Principle” delves into Thoreau’s critique of his time’s American social and economic life, focusing on how society’s values are misplaced, prioritizing wealth and commerce over integrity and simplicity.

  • Critique of Materialism and Economic Pursuits: Thoreau criticizes the societal emphasis on financial success and economic growth at the expense of moral and spiritual well-being.
  • The Importance of Individualism: He argues for living according to one’s values rather than societal expectations, advocating for a life that is true to one’s principles and interests.
  • Living Deliberately: Similar to his reflections in “Walden,” Thoreau encourages living a simple, deliberate life focused on what truly matters rather than being caught in the pursuit of wealth and possessions.
  • Meaningful Work: He emphasizes the importance of engaging in work that is fulfilling on a personal and ethical level rather than just for financial gain.
  • Reflection on Personal Values: Thoreau calls for introspection and the reevaluation of one’s life and choices based on personal values and principles rather than external measures of success.

Both works embody Thoreau’s commitment to individualism, personal integrity, and social justice, challenging readers to reconsider their values, the structure of society, and their role within it.

Quotes associated with Thoreau:

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

“Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify.”