What does Thoreau mean by "quiet desperation" in Walden?

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In Walden, by "quiet desperation" Thoreau means the suffering of people who lead shallow, inauthentic lives dominated by competition for wealth, success, or the struggle for survival. Thoreau describes these people as leaving the city and entering the country, desperate for distraction or a respite from their busy lives, only to return to the city, unchanged.

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In a famous paragraph in Walden, Henry David Thoreau asserts the following:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. 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. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

Thoreau sees most men as leading hollow, inauthentic lives spent in pursuit of wealth or ambition or perhaps merely survival. These people may sometimes go to the countryside and may even visit the same woods where he is staying, but they rush to and from these tranquil places, filling them with noise and anxiety while they remain. They go shooting, killing animals rather than looking at them and appreciating their beauty, or amuse themselves with other pastimes in which there is no particular pleasure but which merely provide a brief respite from the work to which they must always return.

The mental and emotional state engendered by such a frenetic and empty lifestyle is what Thoreau means by "quiet desperation." The men who live these lives do not dare cry out in pain, or beat their breasts, or weep like the tragic hero at the end of a Greek play. Their silence and repression adds to their desperation, since they never admit to anyone how tragically unfulfilling their lives are. Perhaps they will not even admit this to themselves, which hinders the possibility of escape even further. Thoreau contrasts this inner turmoil suffered in silence with the truly quiet mind, which is nourished by serene contemplation in the midst of nature.

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