Context: Thoreau placed himself in partial isolation in a hermitage at Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, for the period 1845–1847, and during this time reflected deeply on the conditions and circumstances of humanity. In this first part of his journal he pictures the majority of men as slaves and drudges to daily labor. A man’s true situation is what he believes it to be, says Thoreau, and most men are so downtrodden with the unrelieved task of earning their living and serving their masters that they soon collapse into a leaden resignation, unable to believe that life holds any real happiness or reward for them.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. . . .
When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.