Thoreau on Simplicity

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

In our first post of this series, we will discuss one of the major themes in Walden(public library), the necessity of simple living.

Thoreau spent his time in a small, one room cabin at Walden Pond, consisting of the barest of necessities to ensure that his time was spent in only worthwhile pursuits. Thoreau lived a life far different from that of his contemporaries, feeling strongly that we did not own our possessions, but, rather, they owned us.

He warned that men had become “the tools of their tools” and “herds the keepers of men.” He saw that we often traded our liberty in pursuit of ideals and possessions that often cost more than they are worth. Thoreau warned:

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

He devoted his waking hours to the appreciation of nature, the preservation of his solitude, and the exploration of his own depths. He recognized that everything came at a cost, and that cost was a portion of our finite life, and soon came to believe that there were very few, if any, worthwhile trades for such a commodity. Observing the lengths we go to obtain and maintain so many things unnecessary to our well being, Thoreau went on to say:

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

If this held true in 19th century New England, imagine its validity today. Advancements in entertainment have given each of us access to nearly limitless forms of media. Clearly, the benefits depend upon their use, but for the majority of consumers, these inventions become obstacles to their development. We pay attention to things of little value, and we pay with our lives. Thoreau saw that a man needs very little in the way of material comforts and acknowledged the value of his disposition:

“For my greatest skill has been to want but little.”

Thoreau believed true wealth was the opportunity to move freely upon our own accord, unencumbered by possessions and social obligations, but many of us are without such luxury.

We have jobs, families, relationships, and homes to maintain. Our attention is pulled in every direction as we navigate the many roles we play, and though we may not have the opportunity or desire to live such an uncommitted life as he did, there is much in his wisdom which can be applied to our own. To ensure we are spending our time in worthy endeavors, we would all do well to remove the superfluous activities which fill our waking hours. As Thoreau taught,

“Our life is frittered away by detail.”

For me, and this is without a mortgage, wife, or kids, I find that if I am not purposeful with my time, it slips away.

Every Sunday, I go to the whiteboard and plan my upcoming week. My three priorities are my health, reading and writing, and my relationships. I write down all the things I must do in the week ahead to nourish and grow these areas of my life, providing the proper direction to ensure I use my time well. This is the best method I have found to ensure I am spending my hours in ways which best serve my ultimate end.

Thoreau went to the woods to “drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” I find that as long as I maintain this triad, my life is fulfilled, meaningful, and progressing. Everything else becomes extra-credit or unnecessary. For each of us, we would do well to determine the absolute necessities of our lives, and consistently check-in to be sure that we are using well the time we are given.

As we simplify our lives, we give ourselves the opportunity to maximize our personal development, the subject of our next post in this series.

If you want to read Chris’s latest book on personal development, check it out here.

If you would like to be coached by Chris personally, click here.

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