I think his best quote is "Simplify, simplify, simplify." Even though Thoreau wrote that over 100 years ago, it's still so applicable today. If Thoreau was telling the people of his time to simplify their lives, can you imagine what he would think of our society today? We, as a society, have become so materialistic, needing, relying on, depending on things like cell phones, internet, iPods, cars, airplanes, ATMs, laptops, coffee shops, Super-Mega-Ultra Wal-Marts, and even things like refrigerators, stove, microwaves, electricity, indoor plumbing. Some of us would be fine without a cell phone, iPod, cable, video game system, but there are few among us who could go even close to as simple as Thoreau got. I have students who would rather I took away an arm or a hand than their cell phone. I wonder if Thoreau would marvel at our advances or be disgusted at how dependent we've become.
From Walden: 'I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,—”That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.'
( Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed a similar sentiment in his essay “Politics:” “Hence the less government we have the better—the fewer laws and the less confided power.”—Essays: Second Series, in The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, p. 302 (1929) )
These quotes imply that the more power a people have, the less the government has (and vice-versa); a free people are at liberty to do as they please as long as they observe the rights of others, and this was a founding principle of the United States. Thomas Jefferson stated this same philosophy:
"When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty."
...and given the current administration, Give Me Liberty!
I always liked the quote from "The night Thoreau Spent in Jail." Thoreau has been locked up for not paying his taxes because he doesn't like the fact that his taxes are going to pay for a war with which he disagrees. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who supposedly believed the same things as Thoreau encounters his friend in jails and says, "What are you doing here?" Thoreau is quick to reply to Emerson, " Why Waldo, what are you doing by not being here?" To me, this quote shows the difference between the two men. Both were romantic idealists but Thoreau was willing to act on his beliefs. Emerson just simply stated his beliefs.
Still another often quoted line is from "Walden": "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." How frequently this is true of people trapped in unfulfilling jobs and relationships. And, so many times this remark seems thematic of works of literature (e.g. "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter," even some of the characters in "Brave New World").
An artiistic soul, Thoreau pbserved.
If a man does not keep pace with his companion perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
But, perhaps one of the most profound of Thoreau's aphorisms is "It takes two to speak the truth,--one to speak, and another to hear." --"Wednesday"