Excerpts from Thoreau’s juvenilia

This is a collection of excerpts from the school- and college-era writing of Henry David Thoreau on themes concerning law, government, man in society, ethics, economics, duty, and conscience.

These are based on the transcriptions in Early Essays and Miscellanies (edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer and Edwin Moser, with Alexander C. Kern, Princeton University Press: ). Footnotes are mine.


Aristocrats may say what they please, liberty and equal rights are and ever will be grateful, till nature herself shall change; and he who is ambitious to exercise authority over his fellow beings, with no view to their benefit or injury, is to be regarded as actuated by peculiarly selfish motives. Self-gratification must be his sole object. Perhaps he is desirous that his name may be handed down to posterity, that in after ages something more may be said of him, than that he lived, and died. He may be influenced by still baser motives; he may take delight in the enjoyment of power merely, and feel a kind of satisfaction at the thought that he can command and be obeyed. It is evident then that he, who thus influenced, attains at last the summit of his wishes, will be a curse upon mankind. His deeds may never be forgotten; but is this greatness? If so, may I pass through life unheeded and unknown.

“But grant that those can conquer; these can cheat;
 ’Tis phrase absurd to call a villain great.”1

From a exercise on the subject of “[t]he different ideas we form of men whose pursuit is money, power, distinction, domestic happiness, public good.”

  1. From Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man

The end of all punishment is the welfare of the state — the good of community at large — not the suffering of an individual. It matters not to the lawgiver what a man deserves, for to say nothing of the impossibility of settling this point, it would be absurd to pass laws against prodigality, want of charity, and many other faults of the same nature, as if man was to be frightened into a virtuous life, though these in a great measure constitute a vicious one. We leave this to a higher tribunal. So far only as public interest is concerned, is punishment justifiable — if we overstep this bound our own conduct becomes criminal. Let us observe in the first place the effects of severity.

Does the rigor of the punishment increase the dread operating upon the mind to dissuade us from the act? It certainly does if it be unavoidable. But where death is a general punishment, though some advantage may seem to arise from the severity, yet this will invariably be more than counterbalanced by the uncertainty attending the execution of the law. We find that in England, for instance, where, in Blackstone’s day,1 160 offences were considered capital, of 655 who were indicted for stealing, 113 being capitally convicted, not one was executed; and yet no blame could attach to the conduct of the juries, the fault was in the law. Had death, on the other hand, been certain, the law could have existed but a very short time. Feelings of natural justice, together with public sentiment, would have concurred to abolish it altogether. In fact wherever those crimes which are made capital form a numerous class, and petty thefts and forgeries are raised to a level with murder, burglary, and the like, the law seems to defeat its own ends. The injured influenced, perhaps, by compassion, forbear to prosecute, and thus are numerous frauds allowed to escape with impunity, for want of a penalty proportionate to the offense. Juries too, actuated by the same motives, adopt the course pointed out by their feelings. As long as one crime is more heinous and more offensive than another, it is absolutely necessary that a corresponding distinction be made in punishing them. Otherwise, if the penalty be the same, men will come to regard the guilt as equal in each case.

It is enough that the evil attending conviction exceed the expected advantage. This I say is sufficient, provided the consequences be certain, and the expected benefit be not obtained. For it is the hope of escaping punishment — a hope which never deserts the rogue as long as life itself remains, that renders him blind to the consequences, and enables him to look despair in the face. Take from him this hope, and you will find that certainty is more effectual than severity of punishment. No man will deliberately cut his own fingers. The vicious are often led on from one crime to another still more atrocious by the very fault of the law, the penalty being no greater, but the certainty of escaping detection being very much increased. In this case they act up to the old saying, that “one may as well be hung for stealing an old sheep as a lamb.” Some have asked, “cannot reward be substituted for punishment? Is hope a less powerful incentive to action than fear? When a political pharmacopoeia has the command of both ingredients, wherefore employ the bitter instead of the sweet?” This reasoning is absurd. Does a man deserve to be rewarded for refraining from murder? Is the greatest virtue merely negative, or does it rather consist in the performance of a thousand everyday duties, hidden from the eye of the world? Would it be good policy to make the most exalted virtue even, a subject of reward here? Nevertheless, I question whether a pardon has not a more salutary effect, on the minds of those not immediately affected by it, vicious as well as honest, than a public execution.

It would seem then, that the welfare of society calls for a certain degree of severity; but this degree must bear some proportion to the offence. If this distinction be lost sight of, punishment becomes unjust as well as useless — we are not to act upon the principle that crime is to be prevented at any rate, cost what it may; this is obviously erroneous.

From a exercise on the subject of “[t]he comparative moral policy of severe and mild punishments.”

  1. William Blackstone ()

The fact that he was no party man, the leader of no sect, but equally to be feared by the foes of freedom and religion every where, explains the circumstance of his being passed over, with little if any notice, by the historians of the day. The age in which he lived was not worthy of him, his contemporaries knew not how to appreciate his talents or his motives to action, the principles which he advanced, the great truths which he foretold were soon to shake the civilized world to its very center, and before which the bulwarks of tyranny and oppression were to crumble away, were to them absolutely unintelligible, unmeaning nonsense — opposed to that “clearness of ratiocination” which even Clarendon1 allowed him to possess in conversation.

It was peculiarly the duty of America to brush away the dust of ages that had collected around his name — to clear off the cobwebs that prejudices and calumny had spun…

From fragments on the subject of Sir Henry Vane, dated .

  1. Edward Hyde

I maintain that the Government ought to provide for the education of all children who would otherwise be brought up, or rather grow up, in ignorance.

In the first place the welfare of the individual, and in the second that of the community, demand it. It is as much the duty of the parent to educate, as it is to feed and clothe, the child. For on what, I would ask, depends this last duty? Why is the child to be fed and clothed, if not to enable him to receive and make a proper use of — an education? an education which he is no better able to obtain for himself, than he is to supply his physical wants. Indeed the culture of the physical is important only so far as it is subservient to that of the intellectual man. No one disputes this. Should then poverty or neglect threaten to rob the child of this right — a right more dear and more worthy to be cherished and defended than any he can enjoy — in such a case, it appears to me to be the duty of that neighbor whose circumstances will allow it, to take the part of the child, and act the part of a parent. The duty in this instance amounts to a moral obligation, and is as much a duty as it is a duty to preserve the life of the infant whose unnatural parents would suffer it to starve by the road-side. What can it profit a man that he hath enough to eat and drink, and the wherewithal he may be clothed, provided he lose his own soul?1

But as these wealthy neighbors can accomplish more good by acting in concert, can more effectually relieve the unfortunate by a community of good offices, it is their duty, or, in other words, the duty of the community, so to do. Thus much for the welfare of the child.

That such a course, in the second place, is consistent with, nay, is necessary to, the greatest good of the community, scarcely admits of a doubt.

I shall not undertake to prove that the community ought to do what is for its own good; this is entirely unnecessary; since the welfare of posterity is certainly to be consulted.

From an exercise on the theme of “[w]hether the Government ought to educate the children of those parents who refuse to do it themselves.”

  1. An allusion to the teachings of Jesus (see, for instance, Mark 8:36)

Rome had never been mistress of the world had not the distinction of allies been merged in the title of Roman citizens. They were Romans who conquered the world; so many Latins, Apulians, and Campanians, had they stood, in other respects, in precisely the same relative situations, would sooner have gone to war with each other. How much mischief have those magical words, North, South, East, and West, caused. Could we rest satisfied with one mighty, all-embracing West, leaving the other three cardinal points to the old world, methinks we should not have cause for so much apprehension about the preservation of the Union. When, in addition to these natural distinctions, descriptive and characteristic epithets are applied, by their own countrymen, to the people of different sections of the country, though in a careless and bantering manner, the patriot may well tremble for the Union.

From a exercise on the theme of “the characteristics which, either humorously or reproachfully, we are in the habit of ascribing to the people of different sections of our own country.”

I shall confine myself to the examination of Mr. Dymond’s opinions without pretending to offer any of my own. He defines a lie to be “uttering what is not true when the speaker professes to utter truth, or when he knows it is expected by the hearer.” We are to bear in mind that whether the term is to be understood in a good or a bad sense, must depend upon the definition assigned it. As here used, it is altogether arbitrary. Mr. Dymond does not tell us that this or that is a lie, but finds it necessary first to define the term — to inform us what, in the following essay, is to be understood by the term lie.

This being premised, let us inquire first, whether a man may, under any conceivable circumstances, tell a lie without the infraction of the moral law. May we not lie to a robber, in order to preserve our property? Our author thinks not. If we may lie to preserve our property, says he, we may murder, and as it would be wrong to murder in such a case, so would it be wrong to lie. But this reasoning is by no means conclusive, for who can say what constitutes a lie. Dymond applies the term arbitrarily to certain forms of speech; suppose we do the same. To lie, we will say, is to “utter what is true when the speaker professes to utter truth, or when he knows it is expected by the hearer.”

To lie then, in this sense, would be immoral, because to murder, with the same view, would be immoral. It is the similarity of purpose, and not of means, which constitutes the immorality in this case. This method of reasoning amounts, in fact, to a manifest petitio principii.1

But further, may we not “tell a falsehood to a madman for his own advantage?” Dymond’s answer amounts to this: It would not be for his advantage, and hence would it be morally wrong to commit so egregious a blunder. Indeed, this is the only sign of an argument adduced to prove this particular point. This surely is founding the guilt of lying upon its ill effects, which procedure our author condemned in the outset.

In the second place, are those untruths sometimes amounting to lies, in the sense in which Dymond uses the term, which custom has sanctioned, in any way defensible? We must here have some regard to the effects of the practice, the motives and expectations of the parties being unknown. If these are not lies they are evidently gratuitous, for where is the use of telling an untruth to one who receives it as such, if it be not a fiction calculated to please or instruct? Might not one as well remain silent? But what is useless is never harmless. If, on the other hand, these are lies, if the speaker “utters what is untrue when he profess to utter truth, or when he knows it is expected by the hearer,” his conduct is certainly to be condemned.

As for those cases in which it is impossible to be deceived — the compliments which bring up the rear in a dedication or epistle — we can at best say no good of them. To excuse them because they are taken for what they are worth, would be like pardoning the vices of a dangerous member of society, because his character is properly estimated — the very fact of its being understood implying its condemnation.

A exercise on the morality of lying and truth-telling, based on Jonathan Dymond’s “Essays on the Principles of Morality” and Amelia Opie’s “Illustrations of Lying, in All its Branches.” Dymond and Opie were Quakers.

  1. petitio principii

Neither natural nor revealed religion affords any rules by which we may determine the comparative enormity of different vices, or the comparative excellence of different virtues. The Hebrew code, which Christ came not to destroy but to fulfill, makes no such distinction — vice, under whatever form, is condemned in unqualified and positive terms. We are told, in our Savior’s exposition of the law, that one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled; — and whosoever shall break one of the least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.1 So far, too, as man has deduced a moral code from a philosophical study of the works of creation — their operation and design — our remark will hold good with respect to that also.

The idea appears to be a prevalent one, that duty consists in certain outward acts, whose performance is more or less obligatory under different circumstances, though it can never be entirely neglected with impunity; and, consequently, that one duty may interfere with another, and that there may be situations in which a man cannot possibly avoid the violation of duty. This arises, I think, from confining duty to the outward act, instead of making it consist in conformity to the dictates of an inward arbiter, in a measure independent of matter, and its relations, time and space.

Duty is one and invariable — it requires no impossibilities, nor can it ever be disregarded with impunity; so far as it exists, it is binding, and if all duties are binding, so as on no account to be neglected, how can one bind stronger than another?

So far then as duty is concerned, we may entirely neglect the distinction of little things and great.

Mere conformity to another’s habits or customs is never, properly speaking, a duty, though it may follow as a natural consequence of the performance of duty.

The fact that such is the general practice of mankind does not affect a question of duty. I am required, it is true, to respect the feelings of my neighbor within the limits of his own estate, but the fear of displeasing the world ought not, in the least, to influence my actions; were it otherwise the principal avenue to reform would be closed.

A exercise on “the duty, inconvenience and dangers of conformity, in little things and great.”

  1. See Matthew 5:17–19

First, what is moral excellence? Not, surely, the mere acknowledgment of the divine origin of the Scriptures, and obedience to their dictates as such; nor yet an implicit compliance with the requisitions of what may be termed popular morality. It consists rather in allowing the religious sentiment to exercise a natural and proper influence over our lives and conduct — in acting from a sense of duty, or, as we say, from principle.

The morally excellent, then, are constantly striving to discover and pursue the right. This is their whole duty; for, in the inquiry what is right, reason alone can decide, and her dictates are ever identical with the dictates of duty. Here then is ample room for the exercise of the intellectual faculties.

What, in fact, is the end of all inquiry but the discovery of truth — of right? The man of the world, no less than the logician, though his objects of pursuit be unworthy a man, is still anxious only to learn the best way to attain them; the degraded and vicious have already discovered the right way to do wrong. Indeed no man ever proves so wholly false to his nature as not to worship truth under some form or other, none so lost to all sense of honesty, as not to contend for, and lay claim to, the right.

The morally right, or true, differs only from the worldly or temporal, in that it is the only real and universal right — that most worthy of man’s inquiry and pursuit — the only right recognized by philosophy. As it is the most abstract, so is it the most practical of all, for it admits of universal application.

None, in fine, but the highest minds, can attain to moral excellence. With by far the greater part of mankind, religion is a habit, or rather, habit is a religion, their views of things are illiberal and contracted, for the very reason that they possess not intellectual power sufficient to attain to moral excellence. However paradoxical it may seem, it appears to me that to reject Religion is the first step towards moral excellence; at least, no man ever attained to the highest degree of the latter by any other road. Byron’s character1 is a favorite argument with those who maintain the opposite opinion; a better for my own purpose I could not have desired. He advanced just far enough on the road to excellence to depart from the religion of the vulgar, nay further, twelve lines, says Constant,2 (and he quotes them) of his poetry, contain more true religion than was ever possessed by any or all of his calumniators.

Could infidels but live double the number of years allotted to other mortals, they would become patterns of excellence. So too of all true poets — they would neglect the beautiful for the true.

So far, then, from impeding the development of the Intellectual Powers, Moral Excellence is made the sole pursuit, and is attainable only, by the highest minds.

A exercise on “[w]hether Moral Excellence tend directly to increase Intellectual Power”.

  1. Byron
  2. Benjamin Constant in De La Religion, Considérée dans sa Source, ses Formes et ses Développements. The twelve lines come from Byron’s The Island.

One cannot safely imitate the actions, as such, even of the wise and good. Truth is not exalted, but rather degraded and soiled by contact with humanity. We may not conform ourselves to any moral pattern, but should conform our every act and thought to Truth.

Truth is that whole of which Virtue, Justice, Benevolence and the like are the parts, the manifestations; she includes and runs through them all. She is continually revealing herself. Why, then, be satisfied with the mere reflection of her genial warmth and light? why dote upon her faint and fleeting echo, if we can bask in her sunshine, and hearken to her revelations when we will? No man is so situated that he may not, if he choose, find her out; and when he has discovered her, he may without fear go all lengths with her; but if he take her at second hand, it must be done cautiously; else she will not be pure and unmixed.

Wherever she manifests herself, whether in God, in man, or in nature, by herself considered, she is equally admirable, equally inviting; though to our view she seems, from her relations, now stern and repulsive, now mild and persuasive. We will then consider Truth by herself, so that we may the more heartily adore her, and more confidently follow her.

Next, how far was the life of Atticus a manifestation of Truth? According to Nepos,1 his Latin biographer: “He so carried himself as to seem level with the lowest, and yet equal to the highest. He never sued for any preferment in the State, because it was not to be obtained by fair and honorable means. He never went to law about anything. He never altered his manner of life, though his estate was greatly increased. His complaisance was not without a strict regard for truth.”

Truth neither exalteth nor humbleth herself. She is not too high for the low, nor yet too low for the high. She never stoops to what is mean or dishonorable. She is persuasive, not litigious, leaving Conscience to decide. Circumstances do not affect her. She never sacrificeth her dignity that she may secure for herself a favorable reception. Thus far the example of Atticus may safely be followed. But we are told, on the other hand: “That, finding it impossible to live suitably to his dignity at Rome, without offending one party or the other, he withdrew to Athens. That he left Italy that he might not bear arms against Sylla. That he so managed by taking no active part, as to secure the good will of both Cæsar and Pompey. Finally, that he was careful to avoid even the appearance of crime.”

It is not a characteristic of Truth to use men tenderly, nor is she over-anxious about appearances. The honest man, according to George Herbert — is

“He that doth still and strongly good pursue,
 To God, his neighbor and himself most true;
   Whom neither fear nor fawning can
 Unpin, or wrench from giving all their due.
   Who rides his sure and even trot,
 While the World now rides by, now lags behind.
   Who, when great trials come,
 Nor seeks nor shuns them, but doth always stay
 Till he the thing, and the example weigh;
   All being brought into a sum,
 What place or person calls for, he doth pay.”2

Atticus seems to have well understood the maxim applied to him by his biographer — “Sui cuique mores fingunt fortunam.” (Character shapes his lot for each of us.)

A exercise on “Titus Pomponius Atticus as an Example.”

  1. Cornelius Nepos
  2. Lines from Constancie by George Herbert

The history of the world, it has been justly observed, is the history of the progress of humanity; each epoch is characterized by some peculiar development; some element or principle is continually being evolved by the simultaneous, though unconscious and involuntary, workings and struggles of the human mind. Profound study and observation have discovered, that the characteristic of our epoch is perfect freedom — freedom of thought and action. The indignant Greek, the oppressed Pole, the zealous American, assert it. The skeptic no less than the believer, the heretic no less than the faithful child of the church, have begun to enjoy it. It has generated an unusual degree of energy and activity — it has generated the commercial spirit. Man thinks faster and freer than ever before. He moreover moves faster and freer. He is more restless, for the reason that he is more independent, than ever. The winds and the waves are not enough for him; he must needs ransack the bowels of the earth that he may make for himself a highway of iron over its surface.

Indeed, could one examine this beehive of ours from an observatory among the stars, he would perceive an unwonted degree of bustle in these later ages. There would be hammering and chipping, baking and brewing, in one quarter; buying and selling, money-changing and speech-making, in another. What impression would he receive from so general and impartial a survey? Would it appear to him that mankind used this world as not abusing it? Doubtless he would first be struck with the profuse beauty of our orb; he would never tire of admiring its varied zones and seasons, with their changes of livery. He could not but notice that restless animal for whose sake it was contrived, but where he found one to admire with him his fair dwelling place, the ninety and nine would be scraping together a little of the gilded dust upon its surface.

In considering the influence of the commercial spirit on the moral character of a nation, we have only to look at its ruling principle. We are to look chiefly for its origin, and the power that still cherishes and sustains it, in a blind and unmanly love of wealth. And it is seriously asked, whether the prevalence of such a spirit can be prejudicial to a community? Wherever it exists it is too sure to become the ruling spirit, and as a natural consequence, it infuses into all our thoughts and affections a degree of its own selfishness; we become selfish in our patriotism, selfish in our domestic relations, selfish in our religion.

Let men, true to their natures, cultivate the moral affections, lead manly and independent lives; let them make riches the means and not the end of existence, and we shall hear no more of the commercial spirit. The sea will not stagnate, the earth will be as green as ever, and the air as pure. This curious world which we inhabit is more wonderful than it is convenient, more beautiful than it is useful — it is more to be admired and enjoyed then, than used. The order of things should be somewhat reversed — the seventh should be man’s day of toil, wherein to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, and the other six his sabbath of the affections and the soul, in which to range this wide-spread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of Nature.

But the veriest slave of avarice, the most devoted and selfish worshiper of Mammon, is toiling and calculating to some other purpose than the mere acquisition of the good things of this world; he is preparing, gradually and unconsciously it may be, to lead a more intellectual and spiritual life. Man cannot if he will, however degraded or sensual his existence, escape truth. She makes herself to be heard above the din and bustle of commerce, by the merchant at his desk, or the miser counting his gains, as well as in the retirement of the study, by her humble and patient follower.

Our subject has its bright as well as its dark side. The spirit we are considering is not altogether and without exception bad. We rejoice in it as one more indication of the entire and universal freedom which characterizes the age in which we live — as an indication that the human race is making one more advance in that infinite series of progressions which awaits it. We rejoice that the history of our epoch will not be a barren chapter in the annals of the world — that the progress which it shall record bids fair to be general and decided. We glory in those very excesses which are a source of anxiety to the wise and good, as an evidence that man will not always be the slave of matter, but erelong, casting off those earth-born desires which identify him with the brute, shall pass the days of his sojourn in this his nether paradise as becomes the Lord of Creation.

A exercise on “[t]he commercial spirit of modern times considered in its influence on Political, Moral, and Literary character of a Nation.” Other researchers have noted the influences of Victor Cousin, Orestes Augustus Brownson and Edward Tyrrel Channing in this piece.