Excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s journals
part one ()
This is part one of a collection of excerpts from the journals of Henry David
Thoreau concerning law, government, man in society, war, economics, duty, and
conscience. This part covers Thoreau’s journals for
For other parts, see:
These are based on the journals transcribed by Bradford Torrey and Francis
H. Allen in their The
Journal of Henry D. Thoreau
(), and on the “lost” volume transcribed by
Perry Miller in Consciousness in Concord
Footnotes are mine unless otherwise noted. I mostly stuck by the
transcriptions used in the sources mentioned above, occasionally omitting
brackets when they were used to insert some obvious missing article or
end-quote, or when the intended addition seemed unnecessary. I sometimes
used ellipses to omit material without distinguishing these from ellipses
used by the editors of the transcribed journals or by Thoreau himself.
Revolutions are never sudden. Not one man, nor many men, in a few years or
generations, suffice to regulate events, and dispose mankind for the
revolutionary movement. The hero is but the crowning stone of the pyramid — the keystone of the arch. Who was Romulus or Remus, Hengist or Horsa,
that we should attribute to them Rome or England? They are famous or infamous
because the progress of events has chosen to make them its stepping-stones.
But we would know where the avalanche commenced, or the hollow in the rock
whence springs the Amazon. The most important is apt to be some silent and
unobtrusive fact in history. In three Saxon
cyules arrived on the British coast — “Three scipen gode comen mid than flode, three hundred cnihten” — The pirate of the British coast was no more the founder of a state than the
scourge of the German shore.
Every proverb in the newspapers originally stood for a truth. Thus the proverb
that man was made for society, so long as it was not allowed to conflict with
another important truth, deceived no one; but, now that the same words have
come to stand for another thing, it may be a for a lie, we are obliged, in
order to preserve its significance, to write it anew, so that properly it
will read, Society was made for man.
The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member, but on the
contrary degrades itself to a level with the lowest. As the reformers say,
it is a levelling down, not up. Hence the mass is only another name for the
mob. The inhabitants of the earth assembled in one place would constitute
the greatest mob. The mob is spoken of as an insane and blinded animal;
magistrates say it must be humored; they apprehend it may incline this way
or that, as villagers dread an inundation, not knowing whose land may be
flooded, nor how many bridges carried away.
In obedience to an instinct of their nature men have pitched their cabins
and planted corn and potatoes within speaking distance of one another, and
so formed towns and villages, but they have not associated, they have only
assembled, and society has signified only a convention of men.
Thoreau’s note: “Scraps from a lecture on ‘Society’
written and delivered before our Lyceum,
Men have made war from a deeper instinct than peace. War is but the
compelling of peace.1
When the world is declared under martial law, every Esau retakes his
birthright,2 and what there is in him does not
fail to appear. He wipes off all old scores and commences a new account. The
world is interested to know how any soul will demean itself in so novel a
position. But when war too, like commerce and husbandry, gets to be a
routine, and men go about it as indented apprentices, the hero degenerates
into a marine, and the standing army into a standing jest.
No pains are spared to do honor to the brave soldier. All guilds and
corporations are taxed to provide him with fit harness and equipment. His
coat must be red as the sunset, or blue as the heavens. Gold or silver,
pinchbeck3 or copper, solid or superficial, mark
him for fortune’s favorite. The skill of a city enchases and tempers
his sword-blade; the Tyrian dye4 confounds him
with emperors and kings. Wherever he goes, music precedes and prepares the
way for him. His life is a holiday, and the contagion of his example unhinges
the universe. The world puts by work and comes out to stare. He is the one
only man. He recognizes no time-honored casts and conventions, no fixtures
but transfixtures, no governments at length settled on a permanent basis. One
tap of the drum sets the political and moral harmonies all ajar. His ethics
may well bear comparison with the priest’s. He may rally, charge,
retreat in an orderly manner, but never flee nor flinch.
(The soldier is the degenerate hero, as the priest is the degenerate saint;
and the soldier and the priest are related as the hero and saint. The
one’s virtue is bravery, the other’s bravery virtue. Mankind
still pay to the soldier the honors due only to the hero. They delight to
do him honor. He is adorned with silver and gold and the colors of the
rainbow, invested with outward splendor; music is for him especially, and
his life is a holiday.)
The ring-leader of the mob will soonest be admitted into the councils of
War is the sympathy of concussion. We would fain rub one against another.
Its rub may be friction merely, but it would rather be titillation. We
discover in the quietest scenes how faithfully war has copied the moods of
peace. Men do not peep into heaven but they see embattled hosts there.
Milton’s1 heaven was a camp. When the sun
bursts through the morning fog I seem to hear the din of war louder than when
his chariot thundered on the plains of Troy.2
Every man is a warrior when he aspires. He marches on his post. The soldier
is the practical idealist; he has no sympathy with matter, he revels in the
annihilation of it. So do we all at times. When a freshet destroys the works
of man, or a fire consumes them, or a Lisbon
earthquake3 shakes them down, our sympathy with
persons is swallowed up in a wider sympathy with the universe. A crash is apt
to grate agreeably on our ears.
I have a deep sympathy with war, it so apes the gait and bearing of the soul.
The Townsend Light Infantry
encamped last night in my neighbor’s inclosure.
The night still breathes slumberously over field and wood, when a few soldiers
gather about one tent in the twilight, and their band plays an old Scotch air,
with bugle and drum and fife attempered to the season. It seems like the
morning hymn of creation. The first sounds of the awakening camp, mingled with
the chastened strains which so sweetly salute the dawn, impress me as the
morning prayer of an army.
And now the morning gun fires. The soldier awakening to creation and awakening
it. I am sure none are cowards now. These strains are the roving dreams which
steal from tent to tent, and break forth into distinct melody. They are the
soldier’s morning thought. Each man awakes himself with lofty emotions, and
would do some heroic deed. You need preach no homily to him; he is the stuff
they are made of.
The whole course of our lives should be analogous to one day of the soldier’s.
His Genius seems to whisper in his ear what demeanor is befitting, and in his
bravery and his march he yields a blind and partial obedience.
No fresher tints than this morning’s witnessed the valor of Hector and
Idomeneus, and some such evening as this the Greek fleet came to anchor in the
bay of Aulis;1 but alas; it is not to us the eve
of a ten years’ war, but of a sixty years’ idleness and
Our peace is proclaimed by the rust on our swords, and our inability to
draw them from their scabbards — She does not so much work as to keep
these swords bright and sharp. Let not ours be such nonresistance as the
chaff that rides before the gale.
The Trojan War is said to have lasted ten years. Sixty years is roughly the span between the establishment of the United States republic and the date of this journal entry.
The very dogs that sullenly bay the moon from farm yards o’ these nights,
evince more heroism than is tamely barked forth in all the civil exhortations
and war sermons of the age.1
Our actions should make the stars forget their sphere
music,2 and chant an elegiac strain — that
heroism should have departed out of their ranks, and gone over to humanity.
If want of patriotism be objected to us, because we hold ourselves aloof from
the din of politics, I know of no better answer than that of
Anaxagoras3 to those who in like case reproached
him with indifference to his country because he had withdrawn from it, and
devoted himself to the search after truth — “On the contrary,” he replied
pointing to the heavens, “I esteem it infinitely.” My country is free — my
country ’tis of thee sweet land of liberty to thee I
Lyrics from an American patriotic anthem named “America”
(but more frequently called “My Country ’Tis of Thee”)
that had been first publicly sung nine years before in Boston.
The brave man is the elder son of creation, who steps buoyantly into his
inheritance, while the coward, who is the younger, waits patiently till he
He is that sixth champion against Thebes, whom, when the proud devices of
the rest have been recorded, the poet describes as “bearing a full-orbed
shield of solid brass.”
“But there was no device upon its circle,
For not to seem just but to be is his wish.”1
Our task is not such a piece of day labor that a [man] must be thinking
what he shall do next for a livelihood, but such that as it began in endeavor,
so it will end only when nothing in heaven or on earth, remains to be
Of such sort then be our crusade, that, while it inclines chiefly to the
heartiness and activity of war, rather than the insincerity and sloth of
peace, it may set an example to both of calmness and energy; we will be as
unconcerned for victory as careless of defeat, not seeking to lengthen our
term of service, nor to cut it short by a reprieve, but earnestly applying
ourselves to the campaign before us. Nor let our warfare be a boorish and
uncourteous one, but a higher courtesy attend its higher chivalry, though not
to the slackening of its sterner duties and severer discipline — that
so our camp may be a palaestra for the exercise of the dormant energies of
Methink I hear the clarion sound, and the clang of corselet and buckler
from many a silent hamlet of the soul. The morning gun has long since
sounded, and we are not yet at our posts.4
The age is resigned. Everywhere it sounds a retreat, and the word has gone
forth to fall back on innocence. Christianity only hopes. It has
hung its harp on the willow and cannot sing a song in a strange
land.5 It has dreamed a sad dream and does not
yet welcome the morning with joy.
Let us hear no more of peace at present — There is more of it in fiercest war
than any Amiens or Utrecht ever compounded.6
We have need to be as sturdy pioneers still as Miles Standish or
Church.7 We are to follow on another trail,
perhaps, but one as convenient for ambushes, and with not so much as a
moccasin print to guide us. What if the Indians are
exterminated?8 Do not savages as grim defile down
into the clearing to-day?
The danger is that we be exterminated.
Perry Miller notes in Consciousness in Concord how
Thoreau rewrote parts of this for a draft of The
Service, and for A Week on the Concord and
We do not avoid evil by hurry-skurry and fleetness in
extenso,1 but by rising above or diving below
its plane. As the worm escapes drought and frost, by boring a few inches
deeper, but the grasshopper is overtaken and destroyed — By our suppleness and
speed we only fly before an evil, by the height or depth of our characters we
Perry Miller notes in Consciousness in Concord how
Thoreau rewrote this for A Week on the Concord and
“at full length, maximum”
Sir Thomas Overbury,1 who says that
Raleigh2 followed the sherriff out of court “with
admirable erection, but yet in such a sort as became a man condemned,” has a
share in that exploit by his discernment. We admire equally him who could do
the deed, and him could see it done.
The humane society1 will not make the hunter
despicable so soon as the butcher nor the grouse shooter so soon as he who
kills sparrows — I feel great respect for the English deer
stalker2 on reading that “‘His muscles must be of
marble, and his sinews of steel.’ He must not only ‘run like the antelope, and
breathe like the trade wind;’ but he must be able ‘to run in a stooping
position with a grey-hound pace, having his back parallel to the ground, and
his face within an inch of it for miles together.’ He must have a taste for
running, like an eel through sand, ventre à
terre,3 and he should be accomplished in
‘skilfully squeezing his clothes after this operation, to make all
Quotes are from a review of The Art of Deer-Stalking by William Scrope ()
at top speed (literally “belly to the ground”)
In the old Chinese book which the French call
Milieu”1 occurs this sentence — “L’ordre ètablie par le ciel s’appelle
nature; ce qui est conforme à la nature s’appelle
loi; l’etablissement de la loi s’appelle
God’s order is nature — man’s order is law — and the establishment of law is
the subject of instruction.
L’Invariable Milieu () was Jean Pierre Abel Rèmusat’s translation of a Confucian work.
Roughly: “The order established by heaven is called
nature; what is in conformity to nature is
called law; the establishment of the law is
Defeat is heaven’s success. He cannot be said to succeed to whom the world
shows any favor. In fact it is the hero’s point
d’appui,1 which by offering resistance to his
action enables him to act at all. At each step he spurns the world. He vaults
the higher in proportion as he employs the greater resistance of the earth.
It is fatal when an elevation has been gained by too wide a concession — retaining no point of resistance, for then the hero like the aeronaut, must
float at the mercy of the winds — or cannot sail for calmer weather, nor steer
himself for want of waves to his rudder.
When we rise to the step above, we tread hardest on the step below.
a foothold, a point of leverage
Every countryman and dairymaid knows that the coats of the fourth stomach of
the calf will curdle milk — and what particular mushroom is a safe and
nutritious diet. You cannot go into any field or wood but it will seem as if
every stone had been turned, and the bark on every tree ripped up. Surely men
are busy and knowing enough after their fashion. One would suppose that he who
had counted the eyes of a fly and the nerves of a caterpillar, must have
learned the whole duty of man in his youth. But alas, it is easier to make a
white rose black, or pears grow on an apple tree, than to do one’s duty for
five minutes. It is vastly easier to discover than to see when the cover is
It is always easy to infringe the law — but the Bedouin of the desert find it
impossible to resist public opinion.
The traveller Stevens1 had the following
conversation with a Bedouin of Mount Sinai. “I asked him who governed them; he
stretched himself up and answered in one word, ‘God.’ I asked him if they paid
tribute to the pasha; and his answer was, ‘No, we take tribute from him.’ I
asked him how. ‘We plunder his caravans.’ Desirous to understand my exact
position with the sheik of Akaba, under his promise of protection, I asked him
if they were governed by their sheik; to which he answered, ‘No, we govern
To yield bravely is infinitely harder than to resist bravely. In the one
course our sin assists us to be brave, in the other our virtue is alone.
True bravery has no ally yet all things are with it.
I find Gibbon1 to have been less a man and more
of a student that I had anticipated — I had supposed him a person of
more genius with as much learning, more an enthusiast than a pedant, better
fitted to influence an active and practical people like the English, than to
lead in a German School.
He had very little greatness. His Roman History,2
by his own confession, was undertaken from no higher motive than the love of
fame. In his religious views he did not differ nobly from mankind, but rather
apologized and conformed. He was ambitious and vain. It was a quite paltry
ambition that inspired his first Essay3 — his observations on the Ænead, and the Decline and
Fall2 — and vanity inspired his memoirs of
his own life.4 In his letters he was more
literary than social, they are moments grudgingly given to his friends, whom
he kept in pay to inform him how that world went on from which he had retired.
I hear him smack his lips at the prospect of a pipe of wine to be sent from
England to Lausanne. There is not recorded of him, that I know, a single
reckless and heroic action, which would have been worth a thousand histories.
That would have been to Rise and Stand. He withdrew into retirement in
Switzerland, not to perfect his culture, but be more at leisure to build up
a reputation undisturbed. He respected and courted the doctors and learned,
not the learning. I think of him only as the laborious ambitious student who
wrote the Decline & Fall, during those 56 years — which after all
it does not concern me to read.
Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the
Memoirs of My Life ()
The character of Washington1 has after all been
undervalued, simply because not valued correctly. He was a proper Puritan
hero. It is his erectness and persistency which attract me. A few simple deeds
with a dignified silence for background and that is all. He never fluctuated,
nor lingered, nor stooped, nor swerved, but was nobly silent and assured. He
was not the darling of the people, as no man of integrity can ever be, but
was as much respected as loved. His instructions to his steward — his refusal
of a crown — his interviews with his officers at the termination of the war — his thoughts after his retirement, as expressed in a letter to La
Fayette2 — his remarks to another correspondent on
his being chosen president — his last words to
Congress3 — and the unparalleled respect which his
most distinguished contemporaries — as Fox and
Erskine,4 expressed for him — are refreshing to
read in these unheroic days.
His behavior in the field and in council, and his dignified and contented
withdrawal to private life — were great. He could advance and he could
To discover a gleam in the trenches, and hear a music in the rattling of the
tools we work with — is to have an eye and an ear — We should not be sad on account of the sins of men, but glad in our own
innocence. Another man’s sin never made me sad, it was my own. A burnishing of
spades and ploughshares the country over would be symbolic of the true reform.