Doug Bruns

The Wisdom of Thoreau

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Wisdom, Writers on February 14, 2011 at 3:33 pm

I’m a member of The Thoreau Society. The stated mission reads: “The Thoreau Society exists to stimulate interest in and foster education about Thoreau’s life, works, legacy and his place in his world and in ours, challenging all to live a deliberate, considered life.” The Society came to my attention many years ago when I discovered that a college English professor, Paul Williams, was the then president. Even then Thoreau had settled on me exerting a major influence on my thinking and my life.

I just received the Society quarterly bulletin which includes an article by Thoreau scholar, Wayne Thomas entitled, “Thoreau’s Seven Principals for Living Deliberately.” To summarize the seven principles (the quotes are Mr. Thomas’ unless otherwise noted):

1.) Be true to yourself. “As America became a production economy in the 1800s and as Americans became wealthier, Thoreau was one of the first to identify societal pressure to conform. He insisted on thinking for himself…”

2.) Network to grow and thrive. “Thoreau had good networking skills. Friends introduced him to a panoply of high-profile personalities of the time including Longfellow, Emerson, Margaret Fuller…”

3.) Life is short, so enjoy it by living simply to stay free. “To live simply, Thoreau identified the things that are ‘necessary to life.’ He would not, he said become a tool of his tools. Key strategies of thrift and simplicity kept him debt free and thus never allowed work to enslave him.

4.) Become self-reliant: do it yourself.

5.) Adapt to changes in life by continually learning and trying new ideas. Thoreau wrote: “I am a Schoolmaster–a Private Tutor, a Surveyor–a Gardener, a Farmer–a Painter, I mean House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.”

6.) Take advantage of the conveniences and opportunities of the age. “It is a myth that Thoreau hated technology….He would have loved the capability of the internet to bring him the cultural riches of the world, but likely would never have wasted his time surfing the net, texting, or checking his email every five minutes.”

7.) Work deliberately. “The work choices and constraints for those who desire to live deliberately are largely a function of one’s choices about consumption. The more debt accrued by acquiring possessions, the less freedom to do what you’d rather be doing.” Said Thoreau: “I make my own time. I make my own terms.”


On a related note, spread out on my desk is a map of Moosehead Lake and the Great North Woods. Thoreau made three trips to the Maine wilderness. This summer I intend to start tracking him.

  1. A perfect summer adventure. (After blackfly season.)

    Have you introduced your beautiful granddaughters to Henry Hikes to Fitchberg or the other Thoreau-oriented books by Johnson? I think they are pretty special.

    • Thanks for the tip on the Johnson books. I’m not familiar and will check them out. Are you familiar with J. Parker Huber’s The Wildest Country, Exploring Thoreau’s Maine? He traces HDT’s travels here, complete with maps.

      • Have not heard of Huber’s book. Sounds like a good potential birthday gift for my Thoreauphile son.

        This list you sent was on my mind while x-country skiing on Tuesday in Jackson, NH. I was thinking it would be interesting to compare to the maxims of Montaigne in How to Live. When I returned to our room, I wrote down my own list (without benefit of printed copy of either and with a mind – also- like a sieve). Now I intend to put the three lists next to each other and see where that takes me. Thanks for the idea for the exercise.

      • So glad to be provoking thought–though I suspect in your case, you’ve always got the wheels turning. I too am trying my hand at the exercise poised by (our readings of) Thoreau and Montaigne–but I’m so verbose, I’m a hundred pages out and still churning, a process directly opposed to the foundational notion of simplicity. Regardless, I salute you and the (seeming) intensity of your journey.

        You raise an interesting tangential question: Was HDT familiar with Montaigne. Emerson was, writes about him, so I’ve got to imagine he was. Must do some research on that (that’s why God invented the internet, no?)

  2. I share your interest in Thoreau. Thoreau was such a compelling figure that I wrote a play called Thoreau based on his life, works and words. My article, My Thoreau Is Still Relevant was published by HNN of George Mason University.

    Although Thoreau is “famous” to some extent, his message, his wisdom and views of government are but a footnote to our educational and political system. We in the country have had such great political leaders in the founding of this country and also great writers like Thoreau, Melville, Twain, and on and on to Hemingway and Faulkner, yet we as a country stumble like we have had no leadership, no guidance. We have become a superpower stumbling through history breaking things apart domestically and internationally.

    • Henry – Thanks for stopping in and reading and commenting. Yes, HDT is a big deal for me. Is your Thoreau writing available on-line? Next week I head north to Moosehead Lake here in Maine to begin retracing his travels through the north woods. I think your observations regarding politics and writers/thinking worthy. But historically, I can’t think of a country that so revered its writers/thinkers as to incorporate that wisdom and insight into government, at least a mature government. France at WWII perhaps comes closest. Thanks for your observations.

      • It’s available from AuthorHouse as a download. I believe you are correct that few countries, if any, incorporate that wisdom and insight into government as you suggest. I was thinking of the founders, George Washington especially, and others, who wrote on government, political parties and foreign policy. Their views and admonishments have been swept aside to make way for a great superpower that discards past wisdom that stands in its way. And Thoreau, well, it’s as if he has little to teach us, or inform us as a nation.

        Thoreau’s trip to Maine and to the top of Mount Katahdin was undoubtedly one of his most notable and memorable trips. In the play I recount that trip and how he engaged an Indian guide, Joe Polis, who took him to the base of the mountain. I condensed several events in one summer culminating in Thoreau’s trip to Maine and Mount Katahdin. I used throughout the play many quotes from his works in the dialogue, such as, “In Wildness is preservation of the world.” Some of the quotes are famous while others less known or unknown. I tried to weave several events into a coherent and accurate story.

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I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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