8 Minimalist Lessons from Henry David Thoreau


“Our life is frittered away by detail … simplify, simplify.”

Henry David Thoreau’s simple and elegant book Walden was one of the earliest American writings about the glories of simple living and appreciating the natural beauty around us.

Thoreau has long been an inspiration to many minimalists, but what exactly can we and should we learn from his life and writings?

Stand up for your values.

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is prison.”

In his Civil Disobedience essay Thoreau describes why he chose to go to jail rather than pay taxes that he felt were funding slavery and war. He goes on to argue for conscious, deliberate actions over unconscious submission. This form of non-violent resistance later inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in their civil rights movements.

In everything from government, civil rights to societal pressures, are you doing what you truly believe is right or just following habit and what is expected of you?

Always be learning.

“A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”

You may love to read productivity and minimalism blogs, but what does that matter if you don’t actually produce something valuable? Reading about your passions is great, but be sure to apply those lessons to your own projects and creations. Education doesn’t stop after high school, college or graduate school end. In fact, why not read a book each week for the rest of your life?

Do you spend your time “relaxing” or improving yourself? Make it a habit to go to your local library and dig into topics that interest you.

Money isn’t everything.

“Wealth is the ability to truly experience life.”

In the essay “Life without Principle” Thoreau argued against trading our lives away for a paycheck. He believed that we should instead value our free time more and sustain ourselves with our own hands and our community. He stated that the world would never run out of gold, but that it was dangerously short on purpose.


“An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

Thoreau loved walking, hiking and canoeing in the woods around him and felt it bettered his creativity and productivity. Exercise and health are crucial components of creativity and productivity, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. A simple walk, run or bike ride are all great ways to exercise and connect with our surroundings.

Reject materialism.

“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.

“Positive hindrance” sure sounds a lot like television, right? Thoreau felt that society’s materialism often blocked real intellectual and personal progress.

Are you focused on improving the way your apartment or house looks or on improving your own skills?

Cultivate self-awareness, introspection and solitude.

“I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau believed that his contemporaries spent too much time rushing about without accomplishing anything worthwhile. And this was before the long hours of corporate culture. He thought all the best work a man could do was done in solitude and he cherished his time alone in the woods in order to better understand himself and to produce a higher quality of work.

Opt for simple housing.

“Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed by them.”

Another quote that sounds straight out of the last couple years. Thoreau may not have known about upside-down mortgages and the housing crisis that America has endured recently, but he realized that people’s homes were causing them more trouble than they were worth.

Today, people think they need to buy a big house and that it will magically make them happy, but often it just ends up forcing them to spend 30 years paying it off and to waste endless hours cleaning all the space they didn’t need in the first place. Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond was the essence of simplicity. Thoreau built his small cabin himself and estimated that it cost him a grand total of $28.12. Sure, it is $28.12 in 1840′s value, but that was still less than one year’s rent at his former college.

How much is your rent or mortgage payment each month and do you actually need all the space you pay for?

Follow a simple diet.

“When I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth.”

Thoreau was never a strict vegetarian, but he did practice a simple diet and believed that it led to self-improvement. Thoreau thought the act of killing, preparing and cooking an animal was unnecessarily unclean and wasteful. This was well before factory farming had even become a reality yet.

We often think about the impact of our spending habits as they relate to us personally, but what about how they relate to the world around us? By spending less money on meat and animal products we lessen the incredible amount of waste and toxins created by factory farming and cease to contribute to animal cruelty.

Thoreau’s Walden has been criticized as being unrealistic and hypocritical, since Thoreau still spent some of his time at his family’s home enjoying somewhat more comfortable conditions. But Thoreau was never advocating a complete removal from society, he merely wanted men to test and improve themselves instead of blindly following what was expected of them.

As minimalists, isn’t that what we’re trying to do also?

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