Excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s journals
part five ()

This is part five 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:

This collection of journal excerpts is also available as a book: The Price of Freedom: Political philosophy from Thoreau’s journals.

These are based on the journals transcribed by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen in their The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau ().

Footnotes are mine unless otherwise noted. I mostly stuck by the transcriptions used in Torrey & Allen, 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.


Being at Cambridge … As I stood on the top of a ladder, [Sibley1] came along with his hand full of papers and inquired, “Do you value autographs?” “No, I do not,” I answered slowly and gravely. “Oh, I didn’t know but you did. I had some of Governor Dunlap2,” said he, retreating.

After talking with Uncle Charles the other night about the worthies of this country, Webster3 and the rest, as usual, considering who were geniuses and who not, I showed him up to bed, and when I had got into bed myself, I heard his chamber door opened, after eleven o’clock, and he called out, in an earnest, stentorian voice, loud enough to wake the whole house, “Henry! was John Quincy Adams4 a genius?” “No, I think not,” was my reply. “Well, I didn’t think he was,” answered he.

  1. Probably John Langdon Sibley
  2. Possibly Robert Pinckney Dunlap, governor of Maine from
  3. Daniel Webster
  4. John Quincy Adams

I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this. None of the joys she supplies is subject to his rules and definitions. What he touches he taints. In thought he moralizes. One would think that no free, joyful labor was possible to him. How infinite and pure the least pleasure of which Nature is basis, compared with the congratulation of mankind! The joy which Nature yields is like that afforded by the frank words of one we love.

Man, man is the devil,
The source of all evil.

Methinks that these prosers, with their saws and their laws, do not know how glad a man can be. What wisdom, what warning, can prevail against gladness? There is no law so strong which a little gladness may not transgress. I have a room all to myself; it is nature. It is a place beyond the jurisdiction of human governments. Pile up your books, the records of sadness, your saws and your laws. Nature is glad outside, and her merry worms within will ere long topple them down. There is a prairie beyond your laws. Nature is a prairie for outlaws. There are two worlds, the post-office and nature. I know them both. I continually forget mankind and their institutions, as I do a bank.

How innocent are Nature’s purposes! How unambitious! Her elections are not Presidential. The springing and blossoming of this flower do not depend on the votes of men.

Trench1 says that “‘rivals,’ in the primary sense of the word, are those who dwell on the banks of the same stream.” or “on opposite banks,” but as he says, in many words, since the use of water-rights is a fruitful source of contention between such neighbors, the word has acquired this secondary sense. My friends are my rivals on the Concord, in the primitive sense of the word. There is no strife between us respecting the use the stream. The Concord offers many privileges, but none to quarrel about. It a peaceful, not a brawling, stream. It has not made rivals out of neighbors that lived on its banks, but friends. My friends are my rivals; we dwell on opposite banks of the stream, but that stream is the Concord, which flows without a ripple a murmur, without a rapid or a brawl, and offers no petty privileges to quarrel about.2

  1. Richard Chenevix Trench (). The quote comes from the edition of his On the Study of Words.
  2. Thoreau’s footnote: “Bailey, I find, has it: ‘Rival Rivalis L. q. d. qui juxta eundem rivum pascit.’ My friends my rivals are.” This refers to Nathan Bailey’s An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (). Thoreau is also punning on the word “Concord” which is the name of his town, his river, and a word synonymous with harmony, accord, agreement.

Trench1 says a wild man is a willed man. Well, then, a man of will who does what he wills or wishes, a man of hope and of the future tense, for not only the obstinate is willed, but far more the constant and persevering. The obstinate man, properly speaking, is one who will not. The perseverance of the saints is positive willedness, not a mere passive willingness. The fates are wild, for they will; and the Almighty is wild above all, as fate is.

  1. Richard Chenevix Trench (). The quote comes from the edition of his On the Study of Words: “‘Wild’ is the participle past of ‘to will’; a ‘wild’ horse is a ‘willed’ or self-willed horse, one that has never been tamed or taught to submit its will to the will of another, and so with a man.”

The exploits of the farmer are not often reported even in the agricultural paper, nor are they handed down by tradition from father to son, praiseworthy and memorable as so many of them are; though if he ran away from hard work once in his youth and enlisted, and chanced to be present at one short battle, he will even in his old age love to dwell on this, “shoulder his crutch and show how fields are won,”1 with cruel satire, as if he had not far better shown this with his axe and spade and plow.

  1. The quote, modified into the present tense here, comes from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village ().

All enterprises must be self-supporting, must pay for themselves. The great art of life is how to turn the surplus life of the soul into life for the body — that so the life be not a failure. For instance, a poet must sustain his body with his poetry. As is said of the merchants, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the life of men is a failure, and bankruptcy may be surely prophesied. You must get your living by loving. To be supported by the charity of friends or a government pension is to go into the almshouse. To inherit property is not to be born — is to be still-born rather. And the other, as I said, provided you continue to breathe, is to go into the almshouse. On Sundays the poor debtor goes to church to take account of stock, and finds his outgoes greater than his income. In the Catholic Church especially they go into chancery.1 As is the sun to the vegetable, so is virtue to the bodily health.

Thoreau reworked this paragraph, along with an journal entry, into two paragraphs in Life Without Principle.

  1. that is, into bankruptcy

The Bermudas are said to have been first discovered by a Spanish ship of that name, which was wrecked on them — “which till then for six thousand years had been nameless,” says John Smith. “No place known had better walls nor a broader ditch.” The English did not stumble upon them in their first voyages to Virginia, and the Englishman who was ever in them was wrecked on them in 1593; yet at the very first planting of them in with some sixty persons, the first Governor the same year “built and laid the foundations of eight or nine forts” (!!), to be ready, one would say, to entertain the first ship company that should be next shipwrecked on to them. It would have been more sensible to have built as many charity houses. These are the vex’d Bermoothes.

This appears nearly verbatim in Cape Cod. The quotes are from Travels of Captaine John Smith ().

Without being the owner of any land, I find that I have a civil right in the river — that, if I am not a land-owner I am a water-owner. It is fitting, therefore, that I should have a boat, a cart, for this my farm. Since it is almost wholly given up to a few of us, while the other highways are much travelled, no wonder that I improve it. Such a one as I will choose to dwell in a township where there are most ponds and rivers and our range is widest. In relation to the river, I find my natural rights least infringed on. It is an extensive “common”1 still left. Certain savage liberties still prevail in the oldest and most civilized countries. I am pleased to find that, in Gilbert White’s2 day, at least, the laborers in that part of England enjoyed certain rights of common in the royal forests, — so called, though no large wood — where they cut their turf and other fuel, &c, &c, and obtained materials for broom-making, &c, when other labor failed. It is no longer so, according to his editor. Nobody legislates for me, for the way would be not to legislate at all.

  1. Commons
  2. Gilbert White (), British naturalist

The last two Tribunes I have not looked at. I have no time to read newspapers. If you chance to live and move and have your being in that thin stratum in which the events which make the news transpire, — thinner than the paper on which it is printed — then these things will fill the world for you; but if you soar above or dive below that plane, you cannot remember nor be reminded of them.

Thoreau used the last sentence of this paragraph in Life Without Principle.

I have devoted most of my day to Mr. Alcott1. He is broad and genial, but indefinite; some would say feeble; forever feeling about vainly in his speech and touching nothing. But this is a very negative account of him, for he thus suggests far more than the sharp and definite practical mind. The feelers of his thought diverge — such is the breadth of their grasp — not converge; and in his society almost alone I can express at my leisure, with more or less success, my vaguest but most cherished fancy or thought. There are never any obstacles in the way of our meeting. He has no creed. He is not pledged to any institution. The sanest man I ever knew; the fewest crotchets, after all, has he.2

…Most with whom I endeavor to talk soon fetch up against some institution or particular way of viewing things, theirs not being a universal view. They will continually bring their own roofs, or — what is not much better — their own narrow skylights between us and the sky, when it is the unobstructed heavens I would view. Get out of the way with your old Jewish cobwebs. Wash your windows.3

  1. Amos Bronson Alcott
  2. Thoreau expanded on this praise for Alcott in Walden, but made its object anonymous
  3. In Life Without Principle he includes this section, combined with parts of the entry, but removes the “old Jewish” description of the cobwebs. See also: .

Here have been three ultra-reformers, lecturers on Slavery, Temperance,1 the Church, &c, in and about our house and Mrs. Brooks’s the last three or four days — A. D. Foss2, once a Baptist minister in Hopkinton, N.H.; Loring Moody, a sort of travelling pattern-working chaplain; and H. C. Wright3, who shocks all the old women with his infidel writings. Though Foss was a stranger to the others, you would have thought them old and familiar cronies. (They happened here together by accident.) They addressed each other constantly by their Christian names, and rubbed you continually with the greasy cheeks of their kindness. They would not keep their distance, but cuddle up and lie spoon-fashion with you, no matter how hot the weather nor how narrow the bed —— chiefly ——4. I was awfully pestered with his benignity; feared I should get greased all over with it past restoration; tried to keep some starch in my clothes. He wrote a book called “A Kiss for a Blow,”5 and he behaved as if there were no alternative between these, or as if I had given him a blow. I would have preferred the blow, but he was bent on giving me the kiss, when there was neither quarrel nor agreement between us. I wanted that he should straighten his back, smooth out those ogling wrinkles of benignity about his eyes, and, with a healthy reserve, pronounce something in a downright manner. It was difficult to keep clear of his slimy benignity, with which he sought to cover you before he swallowed you and took you fairly into his bowels. It would have been far worse than the fate of Jonah.6 I do not wish to get any nearer to a man’s bowels than usual. They lick you as a cow her calf. They would fain wrap you about with their bowels. — —4 addressed me as “Henry” within one minute from the time I first laid eyes on him, and when I spoke, he said with drawling, sultry sympathy, “Henry, I know all you would say; I understand you perfectly; you need not explain anything to me;” and to another, “I am going to dive into Henry’s inmost depths.” I said, “I trust you will not strike your head against the bottom.” He could tell in a dark room, with his eyes blinded and in perfect stillness, if there was one there whom he loved. One of the most beautiful things about flowers is their beautiful reserve. The truly beautiful and noble puts its lover, as it were, at an infinite distance, while it attracts him more strongly than ever. I do not like the men who come so near me with their bowels. It is the most disagreeable kind of snare to be caught in. Men’s bowels are far more slimy than their brains. They must be ascetics indeed who approach you by this side. What a relief to have heard the ring of one healthy reserved tone! With such a forgiving disposition, as if he were all the while forgiving you for existing. Considering our condition or habit of soul — maybe corpulent and asthmatic — maybe dying of atrophy, with all our bones sticking out — is it kindness to embrace a man? They lay their sweaty hand on your shoulder, or your knee, to magnetize you.

If a man walks in the woods for love of them and to see his fellows with impartial eye afar, for half his days, he is esteemed a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods, he is esteemed industrious and enterprising — making earth bald before its time.7

  1. Temperance movement
  2. Andrew T. Foss?
  3. Henry Clarke Wright (), a radical abolitionist, anarchist, and inveterate journal-writer who would go on to passionately defend John Brown’s violent resistance to slavery — you’d think they’d have gotten along better
  4. When Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen edited Thoreau’s journals for their publication, they noted that they had omitted some material, including “a proper name here and there, out of regard for the feelings of possible relatives or descendants of the persons mentioned.” William Ellery Channing also masks the identity when he quotes from this journal entry in the edition of his Thoreau, the Poet-naturalist, but in his edition he makes it clear that it was Wright whom Thoreau was complaining of “chiefly” (Torrey & Allen note that “‘chiefly’ is crossed out in pencil and ‘wholly’ substituted.”)
  5. A Kiss for a Blow: Or, a collection of stories for children; showing them how to prevent quarreling by Henry Clarke Wright ()
  6. Jonah
  7. Thoreau reworked this paragraph for Life Without Principle.

In the warm, muggy night the surface of the earth is mildewed. The mould, which is the flower of humid darkness and ignorance. The Pyramids and other monuments of Egypt are a vast mildew or toadstools which have met with no light of day sufficient to waste them away. Slavery is such a mould, and superstition — which are most rank in the warm and humid portions of the globe. Luxor1 sprang up one night out of the slime of the Nile. The humblest, puniest weed that can endure the sun is thus superior to the largest fungus, as is the peasant’s cabin to those foul temples. It is a temple consecrated to Apis2. All things flower, both vices and virtues, but the one is essentially foul, the other fair. In hell, toadstools should be represented as overshadowing men. The priest is the fungus of the graveyard, the mildew of the tomb.

This section comes after several pages of Thoreau discussing his discovery of a large and delicate mushroom which he brought home but which autodigested rapidly. See for more of Thoreau’s attitude toward the Pyramids.

  1. Luxor
  2. Apis was an ancient Egyptian bull-god, and symbol of the pharaoh.

I have been surprised to observe that the only obvious employment which ever to my knowledge detained at Walden Pond for a whole half-day, unless it was in the way of business1, any of my “fellow-citizens,” whether fathers or children of the town, with just one exception, was fishing. They might go there a thousand times, perchance, before the sediment of fishing would sink to the bottom and leave their purpose pure — before they began to angle for the pond itself. Thus, even in civilized society, the embryo man (speaking intellectually) passes through the hunter stage of development. They did not think they were lucky or well paid for their time unless they got a long string of fish, though they had the opportunity of seeing the pond all the while. They measured their success by the length of a string of fish. The Governor faintly remembers the pond, for he went a-fishing there when he was a boy, but now he is too old and dignified to go a-fishing, and so he knows it no longer. If the Legislature regards it, it is chiefly to regulate the number of hooks to be used in fishing there; but they know nothing about the hook of hooks.

Thoreau reworked this for Walden.

  1. In Walden, Thoreau clarifies: “wood-chopping, ice-cutting, or the like business”

How trivial and uninteresting and wearisome and unsatisfactory are all employments for which men will pay you money! The ways by which you may get money all lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle. If the laborer gets no more than the wages his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself. Those services which the world will most readily pay for, it is most disagreeable to render. You are paid for being something less than a man. The state will pay a genius only for some service which it is offensive to him to render. Even the poet-laureate would rather not have to celebrate the accidents of royalty.

Thoreau worked much of this into Life Without Principle.

Alcott1 spent the day with me . He spent with Emerson2. He observed that he had got his wine and now he had come after his venison. Such was the compliment he paid me. The question of a livelihood was troubling him. He knew of nothing which he could do for which men would pay him. He could not compete with the Irish in cradling grain. His early education had not fitted him for a clerkship. He had offered his services to the Abolition Society, to go about the country and speak for freedom as their agent, but they declined him. This is very much to their discredit; they should have been forward to secure him. Such a connection with him would confer unexpected dignity on their enterprise. But they cannot tolerate a man who stands by a head above them. They are as bad — Garrison3 and Phillips4, &c — as the overseers and faculty of Harvard College. They require a man who will train well under them. Consequently they have not in their employ any but small men — trainers.

Pickering1 says that “the missionaries [at the Hawaiian Islands]2 regarded as one main obstacle to improvement the extremely limited views of the natives in respect to style of living; ‘a little fish and a little poi, and they were content.’” But this is putting the cart before the horse, the real obstacle being their limited views in respect to the object of living. A philosopher has equally limited views in their sense, but then he is not content with material comforts, nor is it, perhaps, quite necessary that he first be glutted with them in order to become wise. “A native, I was assured, ‘could be supported for less than two cents a day.’” (They had adopted the use of coin.)

The savage lives simply through ignorance and idleness or laziness, but the philosopher lives simply through wisdom. In the case of the savage, the accompaniment of simplicity is idleness with its attendant vices, but in the case of the philosopher, it is the highest employment and development. The fact for the savage, and for the mass of mankind, is that it is better to plant, weave, and build than do nothing or worse; but the fact for the philosopher, or a nation loving wisdom, is that it is most important to cultivate the highest faculties and spend as little time as possible in planting, weaving, building, &c It depends upon the height of your standard, and no doubt through manual labor as a police men are educated up to a certain level. The simple style is bad for the savage because he does worse than to obtain the luxuries of life; it is good for the philosopher because he does better than to work for them. The question is whether you can bear freedom. At present the vast majority of men, whether black or white, require the discipline of labor which enslaves them for their good. If the Irishman did not shovel all day, he would get drunk and quarrel. But the philosopher does not require the same discipline; if he shoveled all day, we should receive no elevating suggestions from him.

There are two kinds of simplicity — one that is akin to foolishness, the other to wisdom. The philosopher’s style of living is only outwardly simple, but inwardly complex. The savage’s style is both outwardly and inwardly simple. A simpleton can perform many mechanical labors, but is not capable of profound thought. It was their limited view, not in respect to style, but to the object of living. A man who has equally limited views with respect to the end of living will not be helped by the most complex and refined style of living. It is not the tub that makes Diogenes3, the Jove-born, but Diogenes the tub.

  1. Charles Pickering. The quotes are from The Races of Man.
  2. The bracketed portion is Thoreau’s.
  3. Diogenes the Cynic (who was said to have lived in a tub)

Most towns1 have an academy. Even away up toward the lake we saw a sort of gallows erected near one for the pupils to exercise upon. I had not dreamed of such degeneracy so hard upon the primitive wilderness.

In The Maine Woods (Chesuncook), Thoreau tells it this way: “Close to the academy in this town they have erected a sort of gallows for the pupils to practice on. I thought that they might as well hang at once all who need to go through such exercises in so new a country, where there is nothing to hinder their living an out-door life.”

  1. In Maine where he is travelling.

He1 had made speeches at the Legislature. He and a companion were once put into the bootblacks’ room at the hotel in Portland, when attending the Legislature. In the morning they walked off in disgust to see the Governor of the State. He asked what was the matter. They said they could not stay there; there was too much boot there; Indians did not like the boot any more than white man. The Governor saw the matter righted.

There is more about Governor Neptune in The Maine Woods (Chesuncook). When Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen edited Thoreau’s journals for their publication, they noted that they had omitted much material starting in mid- because it is duplicated “virtually in the language of the Journal” in Chesuncook. They made exceptions for “a few scattered sentences which for one reason or another were not used in… ‘Chesuncook’” of which these are an example.

  1. Governor Neptune of the Penobscot tribe.

I have had the experience of borrowing money for a poor Irishman who wishes to get his family to this country. One will never know his neighbors till he has carried a subscription paper among them. Ah! it reveals many and sad facts to stand in this relation to them. To hear the selfish and cowardly excuses some make — that if they help any they must help the Irishman who lives with them — and him they are sure never to help! Others, with whom public opinion weighs, will think of it, trusting you will never raise the sum and so they will not be called on again; who give stingily after all. What a satire in the fact that you are much more inclined to call on a certain slighted and so-called crazy woman in moderate circumstances rather than on the president of the bank! But some are generous and save the town from the distinction which threatened it, and some even who do not lend, plainly would if they could.

One-eyed John Goodwin, the fisherman, was loading into a hand-cart and conveying home the piles of driftwood which of late he had collected with his boat. It was a beautiful evening, and a clear amber sunset lit up all the eastern shores; and that man’s employment, so simple and direct, — though he is regarded by most as a vicious character — whose whole motive was so easy to fathom — thus to obtain his winter’s wood — charmed me unspeakably. So much do we love actions that are simple. They are all poetic. We, too, would fain be so employed. So unlike the pursuits of most men, so artificial or complicated. Consider how the broker collects his winter’s wood, what sport he makes of it, what is his boat and hand-cart! Postponing instant life, he makes haste to Boston in the cars, and there deals in stocks, not quite relishing his employment, — and so earns the money with which he buys his fuel. And when, by chance, I meet him about this indirect and complicated business, I am not struck with the beauty of his employment. It does not harmonize with the sunset. How much more the former consults his genius, some genius at any rate! Now I should love to get my fuel so — I have got some so, — but though I may be glad to have it, I do not love to get it in any other way less simple and direct. For if I buy one necessary of life, I cheat myself to some extent, I deprive myself of the pleasure, the inexpressible joy, which is the unfailing reward of satisfying any want of our nature simply and truly.

No trade is simple, but artificial and complex. It postpones life and substitutes death. It goes against the grain. If the first generation does not die of it, the third or fourth does. In face of all statistics, I will never believe that it is the descendants of tradesmen who keep the state alive, but of simple yeomen or laborers. This, indeed, statistics say of the city reinforced by the country. The oldest, wisest politician grows not more human so, but is merely a gray wharf rat at last. He makes a habit of disregarding the moral right and wrong for the legal or political, commits a slow suicide, and thinks to recover by retiring on to a farm at last. This simplicity it is, and the vigor it imparts, that enables the simple vagabond, though he does get drunk and is sent to the house of correction so often, to hold up his head among men.

“If I go to Boston every day and sell tape from morning till night,” says the merchant (which we will admit is not a beautiful action), “some time or other I shall be able to buy the best of fuel without stint.” Yes, but not the pleasure of picking it up by the riverside, which, I may say, is of more value than the warmth it yields, for it but keeps the vital heat in us that we may repeat such pleasing exercises. It warms us twice, and the first warmth is the most wholesome and memorable, compared with which the other is mere coke. It is to give no account of my employment to say that I cut wood to keep me from freezing, or cultivate beans to keep me from starving. Oh, no, the greatest value of these labors is received before the wood is teamed home, or the beans are harvested (or winnowed from it). Goodwin stands on the solid earth. The earth looks solider under him, and for such as he no political economies, with their profit and loss, supply and demand, need ever be written, for they will need to use no policy. As for the complex ways of living, I love them not, however much I practice them. In as many places as possible, I will get my feet down to the earth. There is no secret in his trade, more than in the sun’s. It is no mystery how he gets his living; no, not even when he steals it. But there is less double-dealing in his living than in your trade.

About three weeks ago my indignation was roused by hearing that one of my townsmen, notorious for meanness, was endeavoring to get and keep a premium of four dollars which a poor Irish laborer whom he hired had gained by fifteen minutes’ spading at our Agricultural Fair. a free colored woman is lodging at our house, whose errand to the North is to get money to buy her husband, who is a slave to one Moore in Norfolk, Virginia. She persuaded Moore, though not a kind master, to buy him that he might not be sold further South. Moore paid six hundred dollars for him, but asks her eight hundred. My most natural reflection was that he was even meaner than my townsman. As mean as a slaveholder!

After having some business dealings with men, I am occasionally chagrined, and feel as if I had done some wrong, and it is hard to forget the ugly circumstance. I see that such intercourse long continued would make one thoroughly prosaic, hard, and coarse. But the longest intercourse with Nature, though in her rudest moods, does not thus harden and make coarse. A hard, insensible man whom we liken to a rock is indeed much harder than a rock. From hard, coarse, insensible men with whom I have no sympathy, I go to commune with the rocks, whose hearts are comparatively soft.

I was the other night elected a curator of our Lyceum,1 but was obliged to decline, because I did not know where to find good lecturers enough to make a course for the winter. We commonly think that we cannot have a good journal in New England, because we have not enough writers of ability; but we do not suspect likewise that we have not good lecturers enough to make a Lyceum.

This evening at sundown, when I was on the water, I heard come booming up the river what I suppose was the sound of cannon fired in Lowell to celebrate the Whig victory, the voting down the new Constitution.2 Perchance no one else in Concord heard them, and it is remarkable that I heard them, who was only interested in the natural phenomenon of sound borne far over water.

Above all, deliver me from a city built on the site of a more ancient city, the materials of the one being the ruins of the other. There the dwellings of the living are in the cemeteries of the dead, and the soil is blanched and accursed.

I asked Therien1 if he was satisfied with himself. I was trying to get a point d’appui2 within him, a shelf to spring an arch from, to suggest some employment and aim for life. “Satisfied!” said he; “some men are satisfied with one thing, and some with another, by George. One man, perhaps, if he has got enough, will be satisfied to sit all day with his back to the fire and his belly to the table; that will satisfy him, by gorry.” When I met him the other day, he asked me if I had made any improvement. Yet I could never by any manœuvering get him to take what is called a spiritual view of things, of life. He allowed that study and education was a good thing, but for him it was too late. He only thought of its expediency; nothing answering to what many call their aspirations. He was humble, if he can be called humble who never aspires.

…Without the least effort he could defend prevailing institutions which affected him, better than any philosopher, because he implicitly accepted them and knew their whole value. He gave the true reason for their prevalence, because speculation had never suggested to him any other.

  1. Alex Therien, the “true Homeric or Paphlagonian man” whom Thoreau devotes several paragraphs to in Walden, including these observations.
  2. a foothold, a point of leverage