Compilation of the best of Henry David Thoreau – Simplicity at its best

Henry David Thoreau - Live the Life you have Imagined
Henry David Thoreau – Live the Life you have Imagined

Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, and philosopher who is well-known for Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay, Civil Disobedience, an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state.

Thoreau‘s books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry total over 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions are his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern-day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore, while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and “Yankee” love of practical detail. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life’s true essential needs.

Below are 233 quotes attributed to Henry David Thoreau.

001 So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.
002 As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.
003 If a man walks 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 days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.
004 I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.
005 There are old heads in the world who cannot help me by their example or advice to live worthily and satisfactorily to myself; but I believe that it is in my power to elevate myself this very hour above the common level of my life.
006 I learned 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.
007 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.
008 Every man casts a shadow; not his body only, but his imperfectly mingled spirit. This is his grief. Let him turn which way he will, it falls opposite to the sun; short at noon, long at eve. Did you never see it?
009 A broad margin of leisure is as beautiful in a man’s life as in a book. Haste makes waste, no less in life than in housekeeping. Keep the time, observe the hours of the universe, not of the cars.
010 I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
011 The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.
012 Our moments of inspiration are not lost though we have no particular poem to show for them; for those experiences have left an indelible impression, and we are ever and anon reminded of them.
013 The Artist is he who detects and applies the law from observation of the works of Genius, whether of man or Nature. The Artisan is he who merely applies the rules which others have detected.
014 Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
015 While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.
016 I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
017 As for doing good; that is one of the professions which is full. Moreover I have tried it fairly and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.
018 I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.
019 If it is surely the means to the highest end we know, can any work be humble or disgusting? Will it not rather be elevating as a ladder, the means by which we are translated?
020 Great men, unknown to their generation, have their fame among the great who have preceded them, and all true worldly fame subsides from their high estimate beyond the stars.
021 Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.
022 If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
023 There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know. The keeping of bees, for instance.
024 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.
025 A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.
026 It is better to have your head in the clouds, and know where you are… than to breathe the clearer atmosphere below them, and think that you are in paradise.
027 The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.
028 The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
029 Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.
030 As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.
031 Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
032 I am sorry to think that you do not get a man’s most effective criticism until you provoke him. Severe truth is expressed with some bitterness.
033 Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.
034 Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.
035 How does it become a man to behave towards the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.
036 If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.
037 There is one consolation in being sick; and that is the possibility that you may recover to a better state than you were ever in before.
038 I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business.
039 There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself.
040 As in geology, so in social institutions, we may discover the causes of all past changes in the present invariable order of society.
041 The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
042 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.
043 If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.
044 To be admitted to Nature’s hearth costs nothing. None is excluded, but excludes himself. You have only to push aside the curtain.
045 Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.
046 Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with wrong-doing.
047 There never was and is not likely soon to be a nation of philosophers, nor am I certain it is desirable that there should be.
048 In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.
049 When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.
050 Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
051 Thaw with her gentle persuasion is more powerful than Thor with his hammer. The one melts, the other breaks into pieces.
052 Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends… Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.
053 We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.
054 Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another?
055 I have seen how the foundations of the world are laid, and I have not the least doubt that it will stand a good while.
056 Books are to be distinguished by the grandeur of their topics even more than by the manner in which they are treated.
057 Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.
058 I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.
059 Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.
060 To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.
061 Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.
062 A man’s interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town.
063 What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new.
064 It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.
065 Only he is successful in his business who makes that pursuit which affords him the highest pleasure sustain him.
066 If you can speak what you will never hear, if you can write what you will never read, you have done rare things.
067 There is danger that we lose sight of what our friend is absolutely, while considering what she is to us alone.
068 The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.
069 Nothing goes by luck in composition. It allows of no tricks. The best you can write will be the best you are.
070 There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.
071 All men are children, and of one family. The same tale sends them all to bed, and wakes them in the morning.
072 What is human warfare but just this; an effort to make the laws of God and nature take sides with one party.
073 We are not what we are, nor do we treat or esteem each other for such, but for what we are capable of being.
074 The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.
075 Some are reputed sick and some are not. It often happens that the sicker man is the nurse to the sounder.
076 Men have a respect for scholarship and learning greatly out of proportion to the use they commonly serve.
077 It is usually the imagination that is wounded first, rather than the heart; it being much more sensitive.
078 No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well.
079 The language of excitement is at best picturesque merely. You must be calm before you can utter oracles.
080 If I seem to boast more than is becoming, my excuse is that I brag for humanity rather than for myself.
081 There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.
082 I have thought there was some advantage even in death, by which we mingle with the herd of common men.
083 Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. She has long ago taken her resolution.
084 There is no rule more invariable than that we are paid for our suspicions by finding what we suspect.
085 The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.
086 What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.
087 Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.
088 How many things there are concerning which we might well deliberate whether we had better know them.
089 Where there is an observatory and a telescope, we expect that any eyes will see new worlds at once.
090 In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society.
091 We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.
092 It is too late to be studying Hebrew; it is more important to understand even the slang of today.
093 In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim at something high.
094 I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.
095 Books can only reveal us to ourselves, and as often as they do us this service we lay them aside.
096 Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
097 Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself.
098 Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
099 What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.
100 Alas! how little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape!
101 You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.
102 The fibers of all things have their tension and are strained like the strings of an instrument.
103 I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.
104 Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.
105 There is always a present and extant life, be it better or worse, which all combine to uphold.
106 Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed by them.
107 It is not part of a true culture to tame tigers, any more than it is to make sheep ferocious.
108 Front yards are not made to walk in, but, at most, through, and you could go in the back way.
109 Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.
110 Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.
111 I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.
112 Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.
113 If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. Men will believe what they see.
114 I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.
115 It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.
116 If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.
117 There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.
118 True friendship can afford true knowledge. It does not depend on darkness and ignorance.
119 I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.
120 I put a piece of paper under my pillow, and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark.
121 How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?
122 I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
123 It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?
124 It appears to be a law that you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature.
125 In the meanest are all the materials of manhood, only they are not rightly disposed.
126 Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.
127 Friends… they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams.
128 Is the babe young? When I behold it, it seems more venerable than the oldest man.
129 It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.
130 There is more of good nature than of good sense at the bottom of most marriages.
131 The law will never make a man free; it is men who have got to make the law free.
132 A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.
133 God reigns when we take a liberal view, when a liberal view is presented to us.
134 Faith keeps many doubts in her pay. If I could not doubt, I should not believe.
135 Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors.
136 What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?
137 A man cannot be said to succeed in this life who does not satisfy one friend.
138 Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.
139 They can do without architecture who have no olives nor wines in the cellar.
140 Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.
141 The lawyer’s truth is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency.
142 Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.
143 I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.
144 Ignorance and bungling with love are better than wisdom and skill without.
145 The smallest seed of faith is better than the largest fruit of happiness.
146 Before printing was discovered, a century was equal to a thousand years.
147 How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
148 All this worldly wisdom was once the unamiable heresy of some wise man.
149 We shall see but a little way if we require to understand what we see.
150 Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.
151 Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.
152 Justice is sweet and musical; but injustice is harsh and discordant.
153 It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak, and another to hear.
154 It is what a man thinks of himself that really determines his fate.
155 There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.
156 It is the greatest of all advantages to enjoy no advantage at all.
157 Those whom we can love, we can hate; to others we are indifferent.
158 Not only must we be good, but we must also be good for something.
159 It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know.
160 The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.
161 To have done anything just for money is to have been truly idle.
162 I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.
163 We are always paid for our suspicion by finding what we suspect.
164 I have found that hollow, which even I had relied on for solid.
165 May we so love as never to have occasion to repent of our love!
166 Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.
167 To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
168 Do what nobody else can do for you. Omit to do anything else.
169 We should distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes.
170 It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
171 Beware of all enterprises that require a new set of clothes.
172 I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks.
173 Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.
174 It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.
175 What is called genius is the abundance of life and health.
176 Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.
177 The man who is dissatisfied with himself, what can he do?
178 Night is certainly more novel and less profane than day.
179 The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.
180 Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.
181 Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men.
182 Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.
183 We know but a few men, a great many coats and breeches.
184 Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.
185 None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.
186 An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.
187 The language of friendship is not words but meanings.
188 There is but one stage for the peasant and the actor.
189 Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.
190 The squirrel that you kill in jest, dies in earnest.
191 As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
192 After the first blush of sin comes its indifference.
193 Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.
194 If misery loves company, misery has company enough.
195 Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.
196 Every people have gods to suit their circumstances.
197 Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes.
198 That man is rich whose pleasures are the cheapest.
199 Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.
200 Goodness is the only investment that never fails.
201 Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new.
202 An unclean person is universally a slothful one.
203 How can any man be weak who dares to be at all?
204 Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.
205 Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.
206 It is never too late to give up our prejudices.
207 If a man constantly aspires is he not elevated?
208 This world is but a canvas to our imagination.
209 There is no just and serene criticism as yet.
210 In wildness is the preservation of the world.
211 There is no remedy for love but to love more.
212 The savage in man is never quite eradicated.
213 That government is best which governs least.
214 Dreams are the touchstones of our character.
215 It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.
216 The universe is wider than our views of it.
217 Be not simply good – be good for something.
218 The rarest quality in an epitaph is truth.
219 Only that day dawns to which we are awake.
220 Men have become the tools of their tools.
221 Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.
222 The perception of beauty is a moral test.
223 The bluebird carries the sky on his back.
224 Truths and roses have thorns about them.
225 What is once well done is done forever.
226 Men are born to succeed, not to fail.
227 The heart is forever inexperienced.
228 Tis healthy to be sick sometimes.
229 Things do not change; we change.
230 Faith never makes a confession.
231 Being is the great explainer.
232 Live the life you’ve dreamed.
233 Simplify, simplify.
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