Thoreau saw what he felt was a sort of terrible tragedy being played out in the lives of most people. Society encourages people to buy large houses, houses they do not need. Then, those people must work much more than would be necessary if they had simply bought a small home and fewer material objects. Society encourages people to keep up with the latest fashions, and this costs money: money that the average person must work harder to earn. And, for what? Only to have these things?
Thoreau felt it would be better for people to “simplify” their lives, to own less so that they can enjoy more. If one buys a small house, keeping only the necessities, then one can work fewer hours in the day and spend more of one’s hours doing whatever one enjoys: reading, writing, walking, swimming, exploring, and so on. To that end, he writes,
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation …. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.
Thoreau claims that we have resigned ourselves to the rat race—to the constant need to acquire, to own more—and that we can simply choose to opt out, so to speak, of these values.
So, he moved to the woods at Walden Pond to practice what he preached. He built a ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin with only a bed, a desk, and a chair or two, and he kept a garden to grow much of his food. He lived there for two years, two months, and two days, and he later wrote Walden because so many people inquired about his experiences.