Context: Thoreau went to live in a small hut he built for himself on the shores of Walden Pond; there he stayed from 1845 to 1847, reflecting upon life and its meaning for man, and living while he was thinking about life. He says of the experience: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” Before he went to live at Walden Pond, Thoreau tells the reader, he barely escaped buying a farm and thus becoming saddled with too much of the world and its goods. He felt that men “live meanly, like ants,” frittering away their lives upon details. His answer, in his life and in his writings, is to avoid the pettiness of life brought on by making life complicated, by accumulating the burdens of possession that most men strive for. Simplicity is the text for his homily:
. . . Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million, count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.