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Henry David Thoreau - A Success Unexpected In Common Hours

by Kurt Wolbrink January 03, 2018

Henry David Thoreau - A Success Unexpected In Common Hours

In Celebration of Thoreau's 200th Birthday

Variously called poet, philosopher, naturalist, critic, essayist, surveyor, anarchist, abolitionist, transcendentalist, author, and historian, Thoreau was a 19th century master of the “sound bite.” So laden with wonderful nuggets, pearls and one-liners are his writings that anyone searching for an appropriate quote, on most any topic, need not look beyond him – ever.

His writings, especially his 1854 book “Walden” and his “Civil Disobedience” essay of 1849, are known to have influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Edward Abbey, Sinclair Lewis, William Butler Yeates, Upton Sinclair, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gustav Stickley, John Muir, George Bernard Shaw, William Morris, B. F. Skinner, Ernest Hemingway, President John F. Kennedy and many others.

Today, the effects of his thinking have been credited with starting, guiding, or significantly influencing the British labor movement, the environmental movement, the civil rights movement, our system of national parks, the practice of nonviolent resistance, the creation of India, and the wilderness movement.

His bicentennial birthday was on July 12, 2017, but it seems ever more important to celebrate his works throughout the years to ensure that future generations get to know him and his thoughts. To this end, we have carved some of his most famous quotes including his famous closing summation from "Walden" pictured above.

You Can View Our Complete Thoreau Carvings Collection Here:


Here is a (rather lengthy) curated and categorized collection of some of my favorite Thoreau quotes with sources (and yes, I am a fan):

Human Wayfinding:

"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." - Walden

"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." - Walden

"I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor." - Walden

“We live but a fraction of our life.” - Journal, June 13, 1851


Friendly Advice:

“Be not simply good; be good for something." - Walden

"It is never too late to give up your prejudices." - Walden

"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." - Walden

"However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names." - Walden

“Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.” - Journal, October 18, 1855

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” - Walden

“Let nothing come between you and the light.” - Letter to H. G. O. Blake

“Goodness is the only investment that never fails." - Walden

“Go toward the sun and your shadow will fall behind you.” - Journal, February 8, 1841

“The best way to correct a mistake is to make it right.” -Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, January 24, 1843


With a Wry Grin:

"Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." - Walden

"As if you could kill time without injuring eternity." - Walden

"I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born." – Walden

“What does education do? It makes a straight-cut ditch out of a free, meandering brook.” - Journal, 1850

“It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes." - Walden

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” – Journal, November 11, 1854 (in reference the possible watering down of milk during a dairyman’s strike)

“I am not afraid that I will exaggerate the value and significance of life, but that I shall not be up to the occasion which it is. I shall be sorry to remember that I was there, but noticed nothing remarkable-not so much as a prince in disguise; lived in the golden age as a hired man; visited Olympus even, but fell asleep after dinner, and did not hear the conversation of the gods.” - Letter to H.G.O. Blake, April 3, 1850


Keep it Simple:

"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone." - Walden

"Simplify, simplify." - Walden

"I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion." -Walden

"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." - Walden

“That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.” - Journal, March 11, 1856

"Our houses are such unwieldy property that were are often imprisoned rather than housed in them." - Walden

“Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.” – Walden


Timely Food for Thought:

"The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly." - Walden

“No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well as the truth.” - Walden

"The fact which the politician faces is merely that there is less honor among thieves than was supposed, and not the fact that they are thieves."' - Slavery in Massachusetts

"The universe is wider than our views of it." - Walden

"Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." - Civil Disobedience

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” - Civil Disobedience

“It takes two to speak the truth - one to speak, and another to hear.” - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

“The world rests on principles.” - Letter to H.G.O. Blake, December 19, 1854

“Let us not underrate the value of a fact; it will one day flower in a truth.” - Natural History of Massachusetts

“The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free.” - Slavery in Massachusetts

“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." - Slavery in Massachusetts

“Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.” – Civil Disobedience

“If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see. Let them see.” – Letter to H. G. O. Blake, March 27, 1848

“You are expected to do your duty, not in spite of everything but one, but in spite of everything.” - Journal, September 24, 1859


Knowledge, Education and Learning:

“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.” - Walden

“A little thought is sexton to all the world.” - Life Without Principle

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” - Journal, August 5, 1851

“We must look for a long time before we can see.” - Natural History of Massachusetts

“A grain of gold will gild a great surface, but not so much as a grain of wisdom.” - Life Without Principle, 1863

“In the spaces of thought are the reaches of land and water, where men go and come. The landscape lies far and fair within, and the deepest thinker is the farthest traveled.” - A Walk to Wachusett

 “Men have circumnavigated this globe of land and water, but how few have sailed out of sight of common sense over the ocean of knowledge” - Journal, August 8, 1852


On Nature:

“Nature is goodness crystallized.” - Letter to H. G. O. Blake, November 4, 1860

“We must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day.” - Journal, December 29, 1856

“I wish to speak a word for Nature...” – Walking

“In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” – Walking

“The world is but outdoors.” - Journal, February 10, 1841

Kurt Wolbrink
Kurt Wolbrink


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