Excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s journals
part two ()
This is part two 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.
Man finds himself in life, but with no hint for the conduct of an hour. — Conscience only informs him that he must behave.
We must expect no income beside our outgoes — we must succeed now, and we
shall not fail hereafter. So soon as we begin to count the cost the cost
If our scheme is well built within, any mishap to the out-building will not be
The capital wanted is an entire independence upon all capital, but a clear
conscience, and a resolute will.
When we are so poor that the howling of the wind shall have a music in it, and
not declare war against our property — the proprietors may well envy us. We
have been seeking riches not by a true industry or building within, but by
mere accumulation, putting together what was without till it rose a heap
beside us. — We should rather acquire them by the utter renunciation of them.
If I hold a house and land as property, am I not disinherited of sun, wind,
rain, and all good beside? The richest are only some degrees poorer than
It is impossible to have more property than we dispense — Genius is only as
rich as it is generous, if it hoards it impoverishes itself. — What the banker
sighs for the meanest clown may have, leisure and a quiet mind.
We can render men the best assistance, by letting them see how sore a thing
it is to need any assistance. I am not in haste to help men more than God is.
If they will not help themselves, shall I become their abettor?
Wealth, no less than knowledge, is power. Among the Bedouins the richest man
is the sheik, among savages he who has the most iron and wampum is chief, and
in England and America he is the merchant prince.
There is something proudly thrilling in the thought that this obedience to
conscience and trust in God, which is so solemnly preached in extremities and
arduous circumstances, is only to retreat to one’s self, and rely on our own
strength. In trivial circumstances I find myself sufficient to myself, and in
the most momentous I have no ally but myself, and must silently put by their
harm by my own strength, as I did the former. As my own hand bent aside the
willow in my path, so must my single arm put to flight the devil and his
angels. God is not our ally when we shrink, and neuter when we are bold. If by
trusting in God you lose any particle of your vigor, trust in Him no longer.
When you trust, do not lay aside your armor, but put it on and buckle it
tighter. If by reliance on the gods I have disbanded one of my forces, then
was it poor policy. I had better have retained the most inexperienced tyro who
had straggled into the camp, and let go the heavenly alliance. I cannot afford
to relax discipline because God is on my side, for He is on the side of
discipline. And if the gods were only the heavens I fought under, I would not
care if they stormed or were calm. I do not want a countenance, but a help.
And there is more of God and divine help in a man’s little finger than in an
idle prayer and trust.
If the law of the universe were to be audibly promulgated, no mortal lawgiver
would suspect it, for it would be a finer melody than his ears ever attended
to. It would be sphere music.1
There is but one obligation, and that is the obligation to obey the highest
dictate. None can lay me under another which will supersede this. The gods
have given me these years without any incumbrance; society has no mortgage on
Sometimes a particular body of men do unconsciously assert that their will is
fate, that the right is decided by their fiat without appeal, and when this is
the case they can never be mistaken; as when one man is quite silenced by the
thrilling eloquence of another, and submits to be neglected as to his fate,
because such is not the willful vote of the assembly, but their instinctive
The merely political aspect of the land is never very cheering. Men are
degraded when considered as the members of a political organization. As a
nation the people never utter one great and healthy word. From this side all
nations present only the symptoms of disease. I see but Bunker’s Hill and Sing
Sing, the District of Columbia and Sullivan’s Island, with a few avenues
connecting them. But paltry are all these beside one blast of the east or
south wind which blows over them all.
In society you will not find health, but in nature. You must converse much
with the field and woods, if you would imbibe such health into your mind and
spirit as you covet for your body. Society is always diseased, and the best is
…The doctrines of despair, of spiritual or political servitude, no priestcraft
nor tyranny, was ever taught by such as drank in the harmony of nature.
Raleigh’s Maxims1 are not true and impartial, but
yet are expressed with a certain magnanimity, which was natural to the man, as
if this selfish policy could easily afford to give place in him to a more
human and generous. He gives such advice that we have more faith in his
conduct than his principles.
He seems to have carried the courtier’s life to the highest pitch of
magnanimity and grace it was capable of. He is liberal and generous as a
prince — that is, within bounds; brave, chivalrous, heroic, as the knight in
armor and not as a defenseless man. His was not the heroism of
Luther,2 but of
Bayard.3 There was more of grace than of truth in
it. He had more taste than character. There may be something petty in a
refined taste; it easily degenerates into effeminacy; it does not consider
the broadest use. It is not content with simple good and bad, and so is
fastidious and curious, or nice only.
The most attractive sentences are not perhaps the wisest, but the surest
and soundest. He who uttered them had a right to speak. He did not stand on
a rolling stone, but was well assured of his footing, and naturally breathed
them without effort. They were spoken in the nick of time. With rare fullness
were they spoken, as a flower expands in the field; and if you dispute their
doctrine, you will say, “But there is truth in their assurance.” Raleigh’s are
of this nature, spoken with entire satisfaction and heartiness. They are not
philosophy, but poetry.
With him it was always well done and nobly said.
That is very true which Raleigh says about the equal necessity of war and law — that “the necessity of war, which among human actions is most lawless, hath
some kind of affinity and near resemblance with the necessity of law;” for
both equally rest on force as their basis, and war is only the resource of
law, either on a smaller or larger scale — its authority asserted. In war, in
some sense, lies the very genius of law. It is law creative and active; it is
the first principle of the law. What is human warfare but just this — an
effort to make the laws of God and nature take sides with one party. Men make
an arbitrary code, and, because it is not right, they try to make it prevail
by might. The moral law does not want any champion. Its asserters do not go to
war. It was never infringed with impunity. It is inconsistent to decry war and
maintain law, for if there were no need of war there would be no need of law.
I must confess I see no resource but to conclude that conscience was not given
us to no purpose, or for a hindrance, but that, however flattering order and
expediency may look, it is but the repose of a lethargy; and we will choose
rather to be awake, though it be stormy, and maintain ourselves on this earth
and in this life as we may, without signing our death-warrant in the outset.
What does the law protect? My rights? or any rights? My right, or the right?
If I avail myself of it, it may help my sin; it cannot help my virtue. Let us
see if we cannot stay here, where God has put us, on his own conditions. Does
not his law reach to the earth? While the law holds fast the thief and
murderer for my protection (I should say its own), it lets itself go loose.
Expediencies differ. They may clash. English law may go to war with American
law, that is English interest with American interest, but what is expedient
for the whole world will be absolute right, and synonymous with the law of
God. So the law is only partial right. It is selfish, and consults for the
interest of the few.4
Somehow, strangely, the vice of men gets well represented and protected, but
their virtue has none to plead its cause, nor any charter of immunities and
rights. The Magna Charta5 is not chartered rights,
but chartered wrongs.
In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,
Thoreau rewrote this as follows: “I must conclude that Conscience,
if that be the name of it, was not given us for no purpose, or for a
hinderance. However flattering order and expediency may look, it is but
the repose of a lethargy, and we will choose rather to be awake, though
it be stormy, and maintain ourselves on this earth and in this life, as
we may, without signing our death-warrant. Let us see if we cannot stay
here, where He has put us, on his own conditions. Does not his law reach
as far as his light? The expedients of the nations clash with one
another, only the absolutely right is expedient for all.”
I wonder men can be so frivolous almost as to attend to the gross form of
negro slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters who subject us both.
Self-emancipation in the West Indies of a man’s thinking and imagining
provinces, which should be more than his island territory — one emancipated
heart and intellect! It would knock the fetters from a million slaves.
Thoreau reworked this for Walden.
[I]n the ruder states of society every family owns a shelter as good as the
best, and sufficient for its ruder and simpler wants; but in modern civilized
society, though the birds of the air have their nests, and woodchucks and
foxes their holes, though each one is commonly the owner of his coat and hat
though never so poor, yet not more than one man in a thousand owns a shelter,
but the nine hundred and ninety-nine pay an annual tax for this outside
garment of all, indispensable summer and winter, which would buy a village
of Indian wigwams and contributes to keep them poor as long as they live.
But, answers one, by simply paying this annual tax the poorest man secures
an abode which is a palace compared to the Indian’s. An annual rent of from
twenty to sixty or seventy dollars entitles him to the benefit of all the
improvements of centuries — Rumford fireplace, back plastering, Venetian
blinds, copper pump, spring lock,
But while civilization has been improving our houses, she has not equally
improved the men who should occupy them. She has created palaces, but it was
not so easy to create noblemen and kings. The mason who finishes the cornice
of the palace returns at night, perchance, to a hut no better than a wigwam.
If she claims to have made a real advance in the welfare of man, she must
show how she has produced better dwellings without making them more costly.
And the cost of a thing, it will be remembered, is the amount of life it
requires to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. An average
house costs perhaps from one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars, and to earn
this sum will require from fifteen to twenty years of the day laborer’s life,
even if he is not incumbered with a family; so that he must spend more than
half his life before a wigwam can be earned; and if we suppose he pays a rent
instead, this is but a doubtful choice of evils. Would the savage have been
wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?
When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, for instance, who are at
least as well off as the other classes, what are they about? For the most part
I find that they have been toiling ten, twenty, or thirty years to pay for
their farms, and we may set down one half of that toil to the cost of their
houses; and commonly they have not yet paid for them. This is the reason they
are poor; and for similar reasons we are all poor in respect to a thousand
savage comforts, though surrounded by luxuries.
But most men do not know what a house is, and the mass are actually poor all
their days because they think they must have such an one as their neighbor’s.
As if one were to wear any sort of coat the tailor might cut out for him, or,
gradually leaving off palm-leaf hat and cap of woodchuck-skin, should complain
of hard times because he could not buy him a crown!
I have travelled some in New England, especially in Concord, and I found that
no enterprise was on foot which it would not disgrace a man to take part in.
They seemed to be employed everywhere in shops and offices and fields. They
seemed, like the Brahmins of the East,1 to be
doing penance in a thousand curious, unheard-of ways, their endurance
surpassing anything I had ever seen or heard of — Simeon
Stylites,2 Brahmins looking in the face of the
sun, standing on one leg, dwelling at the roots of trees, nothing to it; any
of the twelve labors of Hercules3 to be matched…
nothing at all in comparison, being only twelve and having an end.…
Men labor under a mistake; they are laying up treasures which moth and rust
will corrupt and thieves break through and steal.4
Northern Slavery, or the slavery which includes the Southern, Eastern,
Western, and all others.
It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one;
but worst of all when you are yourself the slave-driver. Look at the lonely
teamster on the highway, wending to market by day or night; is he a son of the
morning, with somewhat of divinity in him, fearless because immortal, going to
receive his birthright, greeting the sun as his fellow, bounding with
youthful, gigantic strength over his mother earth? See how he cowers and
sneaks, how vaguely, indefinitely all the day he fears, not being immortal,
not divine, the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, fame which
he has earned by his own deeds. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with
private opinion. What I think of myself, that determines my fate.
I see young men, my equals, who have inherited from their spiritual father a
soul — broad, fertile, uncultivated — from their earthly father a farm — with
cattle and barns and farming tools, the implements of the picklock and the
counterfeiter. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by
a wolf, or perhaps cradled in a manger, that they might have seen with clear
eye what was the field they were called to labor in. The young man has got to
live a man’s life, then, in this world, pushing all these things before him,
and get on as well as he can. How many a poor immortal soul I have met,
well-nigh crushed and smothered, creeping slowly down the road of life,
pushing before it a barn seventy-five by forty feet and one hundred acres of
land… It’s a fool’s life, as they will all find when they get to the end of
it. The man that goes on accumulating property when the bare necessities of
life are cared for is a fool and knows better.
There is a stronger desire to be respectable to one’s neighbors than to one’s
A state should be a complete epitome of the earth, a natural principality, and
by the gradations of its surface and soil conduct the traveller to its
principal marts. Nature is stronger than law, and the sure but slow influence
of wind and water will balk the efforts of restricting legislatures. Man
cannot set up bounds with safety but where the revolutions of nature will
confirm and strengthen, not obliterate, them.
Scholars have for the most part a diseased way of looking at the world. They
mean by it a few cities and unfortunate assemblies of men and women, who might
all be concealed in the grass of the prairies. They describe this world as old
or new, healthy or diseased, according to the state of their libraries, — a
little dust more or less on their shelves. When I go abroad from under this
shingle or slate roof, I find several things which they have not considered.
Their conclusions seem imperfect.
We can afford to lend a willing ear occasionally to those earnest reformers of
the age. Let us treat them hospitably. Shall we be charitable only to the
poor? What though they are fanatics? Their errors are likely to be generous
errors, and these may be they who will put to rest the American Church and the
American government, and awaken better ones in their stead.
Let us not meanly seek to maintain our delicate lives in chambers or in
legislative halls by a timid watchfulness of the rude mobs that threaten to
pull down our baby-houses. Let us not think to raise a revenue which shall
maintain our domestic quiet by an impost on the liberty of speech. Let us not
think to live by the principle of self-defense. Have we survived our accidents
hitherto, think you, by virtue of our good swords — that three-foot lath that
dangles by your side, or those brazen-mouthed pieces under the burying hill
which the trainers keep to hurrah with in the April and July
mornings?1 Do our protectors burrow under the
burying-ground hill, on the edge of the bean-field which you all know, gorging
themselves once a year with powder and smoke, and kept bright and in condition
by a chafing of oiled rags and rotten stone? Have we resigned the protection
of our hearts and civil liberties to that feathered race of wading birds and
marching men who drill but once a month? — and I mean no reproach to our
Concord train-bands, who certainly make a handsome appearance — and dance
well. Do we enjoy the sweets of domestic life undisturbed, because the naughty
boys are all shut up in that whitewashed “stone-yard,” as it is called, and see the Concord meadows only through a grating.
No, let us live amid the free play of the elements. Let the dogs bark, let the
cocks crow, and the sun shine, and the winds blow!
A small sum would really do much good, if the donor spent himself with it and
did not merely relinquish it to some distant society whose managers do the
good or the evil with it.
Men talk much of cooperation nowadays, of working together to some worthy end;
but what little cooperation there is, is as if it were not, being a simple
result of which the means are hidden, a harmony inaudible to men. If a man has
faith, he will cooperate with equal faith everywhere. If he has not faith he
will continue to live like the rest of the world, whatever company he is
joined to. To cooperate thoroughly implies to get your living together. I
heard it proposed lately that two young men should travel together over the
world, the one earning his means as he went, the other carrying a bill of
exchange in his pocket. It was easy to see that they could not long be
companions, or cooperate, since one would not operate at all. They would part
company at the first and most interesting crisis in their
After… fires in the woods which I helped to put out, a more effectual system
by which to quell them occurred to me. When the bell rings, hundreds will run
to a fire in the woods without carrying any implement, and then waste much
time after they get there either in doing nothing or what is worse than
nothing, having come mainly out of curiosity, it being as interesting to see
it burn as to put it out. I thought that it would be well if forty or fifty
men in every country town should enroll themselves into a company for this
purpose and elect suitable officers. The town should provide a sufficient
number of rakes, hoes, and shovels, which it should be the duty of certain of
the company to convey to woods in a wagon, together with the drum, on the
first alarm, people being unwilling to carry their own tools for fear they
will be lost. When the captain or one of the numerous vice-captains arrives,
having inspected the fire and taken his measures, let him cause the roll to be
called, however the men may be engaged, and just take a turn or two with his
men to form them into sections and see where they are. Then he can appoint and
equip his rake-men and his hoe-men and his bough-men, and drop them at the
proper places, always retaining the drummer and a scout; and when he has
learned through his scout that the fire has broken out in a new place, he, by
beat of drum, can take up one or two men of each class — as many as can be
spared — and repair to the scene of danger.
One of my friends suggests instead of the drum some delicious music, adding
that then he would come. It might be well, to refresh the men when wearied
with work, and cheer them on their return. Music is the proper regulator.
Wherever a man goes men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.
Thoreau inserted this phrase into his brief description of his arrest for
tax resistance in Walden
From time to time I overlook the promised land, but I do not feel that I am
travelling toward it. The moment I begin to look there, men and institutions
get out of the way that I may see. I see nothing permanent in the society
around me, and am not quite committed to any of its ways.
The heaven-born Numa, or Lycurgus, or Solon,1
gravely makes laws to regulate the exportation of tobacco. Will a divine
legislator legislate for slaves, or to regulate the exportation of tobacco?
What shall a State say for itself at the last day, in which this is a
What have grave, not to say divine, legislators — Numas, Lycurguses, Solons — to do with the exportation or the importation of tobacco. There was a man
appealed to me the other day, “Can you give me a chaw of tobacco?” I
legislated for him. Suppose you were to submit the question to any
son of God, in what State would you get it
As to conforming outwardly, and living your own life inwardly, I have not a
very high opinion of that course. Do not let your right hand know what your
left hand does in that line of business. I have no doubt it will prove a
Man and his affairs — Church and State and school, trade and commerce and
agriculture — Politics — for that is the word for them all here to-day — I am
pleased to see how little space it occupies in the
A squaw5 came to our door to-day with two
pappooses, and said, “Me want a pie.” Theirs is not common begging. You are
merely the rich Indian who shares his goods with the poor. They merely offer
you an opportunity to be generous and hospitable.
Equally simple was the observation which an Indian made at
Mr. Hoar’s6 door
the other day, who went there to sell his baskets. “No, we don’t want any,”
said the one who went to the door. “What! do you mean to starve us?” asked the
Indian in astonishment, as he was going out the gate. The Indian seems to
have said: I too will do like the white man; I will go into business. He sees
his white neighbors well off around him, and he thinks that if he only enters
on the profession of basket-making, riches will flow in unto him as a matter
of course; just as the lawyer weaves arguments, and by some magical means
wealth and standing follow. He thinks that when he has made the baskets he has
done his part, now it is yours to buy them. He has not discovered that it is
necessary for him to make it worth your while to buy them, or make some which
it will be worth your while to buy. With great simplicity he says to himself:
I too will be a man of business; I will go into trade. It isn’t enough simply
to make baskets. You have got to sell them.7
Thoreau also included this thought in a letter to Harrison Blake, dated
This thought is interrupted by missing pages in the journal, but Thoreau
completes it in Walking: “…I sometimes direct
the traveller thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the
great road, — follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it
will lead you straight to it; for it, too, has its place merely, and does
not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean-field into the
forest, and it is forgotten. In one half-hour I can walk off to some
portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s
end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are
but as the cigar-smoke of a man.”
In Walden, Thoreau relates this anecdote and
adds: “I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had
not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my
case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of
studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied
rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.” See also
in which Thoreau tells an anecdote about a misapprehension on the other
side of supply and demand.
John Garfield brought me this morning () a young great heron (Ardea
Herodias), which he shot this morning on a pine tree on the North Branch.
It measured four feet, nine inches, from bill to toe and six feet in alar
extent, and belongs to a different race from myself and
Mr. Frost. I am glad to recognize him for a
native of America — why not an American citizen?
A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw
the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and
some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had
taken place around him, and he did not see the angels around, but was looking
for an old post-hold in the midst of paradise. I looked again and saw him
standing in the middle of a boggy Stygian fen1,
surrounded by devils, and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three
little stones where a stake had been driven, and, looking nearer, I saw that
the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor.
In Walking, Thoreau includes this paragraph almost
verbatim, preceding it with “Nowadays almost all man’s improvements, so
called, as the building of houses, and the cutting down of the forest and of
all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame
With this language, he evokes Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: “Where he was fostred long in Stygian fen, / Till he to perfect ripenesse grew, and then / Into this wicked world he forth was sent, / To be the plague and scourge of wretched men: / Whom with vile tongue and venemous intent / He sore doth wound, and bite, and cruelly torment.”
It is a strange age of the world this, when empires, kingdoms, and republics
come a-begging to our doors and utter their complaints at our elbows. I cannot
take up a newspaper but I find that some wretched government or other, hard
pushed and on its last legs, is interceding with me, the reader, to vote for
it — more importunate than an Italian beggar. Why does it not keep its castle
in silence, as I do? The poor President, what with preserving his popularity
and doing his duty, does not know what to do. If you do not read the
newspapers, you may be impeached for treason. The newspapers are the ruling
power. What Congress does is an afterclap. Any other government is reduced to
a few marines at Fort Independence.1 If a man
neglects to read the Daily Times, the government will go on its knees to him;
this is the only treason in these days. The newspapers devote some of their
columns specially to government and politics without charge, and this is all
that saves it, but I never read those columns.