The main themes in Walden are the beauty of simplicity, wealth versus poverty, and spirituality in nature.
- The beauty of simplicity: Thoreau believes that his solitude and minimalism allow him to easily access the meaningful and essential elements of life.
- Wealth versus poverty: Materialism is counter to Thoreau’s ideals of enlightenment, and he emphasizes that living with only the most basic comforts can allow one to grow spiritually.
- Spirituality in nature: Thoreau lives closely in tune with nature and emphasizes the sacred similarities between all living things.
Last Updated on May 5, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1204
The Beauty of Simplicity
In addition to providing details on his self-sustaining practices while living alone in the woods, Thoreau illuminates his motive to seek a minimalist lifestyle. Throughout Walden, Thoreau endeavors to live off the land as a means to gaining insight into the earth’s natural wonders. With careful observation of the sights and sounds of the wilderness surrounding him—from the singing birds outside his window to the fish in Walden Pond—he captures the minute splendors of simple living. Thoreau’s objective is to assess the ingredients for a meaningful existence guided by a sense of purpose; for him, these ingredients include solitude, nature, and wisdom, among others.
Thoreau declares the intention behind his journey in the following passage, which is perhaps the most famous in Walden:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Seeking new experiences and exploring uncharted territories is, to Thoreau, incredibly valuable to an individual’s growth and spiritual purity. Further, in gaining a deeper awareness of the beauty of simplicity, he yearns to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” by seeking a solitary and primitive lifestyle—one lived without the limitations imposed by civilized society’s prioritization of wealth and labor over intellectual and individual integrity. Thoreau learns that “it is life near the bone where it is sweetest,” and this realization enables him to “give a true account” of what he deems to be the essential elements to a meaningful life.
Wealth Versus Poverty
While illustrating his transition into primitive living, Thoreau admonishes the emphasis that society places on wealth as an indicator of success. In discussing what he views as necessities for survival—food, shelter, clothing, and fuel—Thoreau analyzes the distinction between the function and luxury of material goods. For example, in “Economy,” he chastises the wealthy for using their means to buy extravagant clothing and other nonessential goods. Thoreau argues,
Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.
In portraying the influence that materialism has on many human cultures, Thoreau stresses that wealth is an insufficient source of happiness and offers no help in achieving self-realization or intellectual growth. He therefore challenges the assumption that the affluent and privileged are intellectually superior to those with less; instead, he believes that excess wealth blinds the wealthy to intellectual and spiritual insight. Before pointing out that “the luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another,” he asks the following question:
And if the civilized man’s pursuits are no worthier than the savage’s, if he is employed the greater part of his life in obtaining gross necessaries and comforts merely, why should he have a better dwelling than the former?
As Thoreau contemplates how this disparity between the “civilized man” and the “savage” operates according to a hierarchical system of entitlement, Thoreau is firm in his belief that self-sufficient and minimalist practices allow individuals to exist with authenticity and grow with purpose. He affirms that “there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities” if one chooses to live simply and without luxuries. One must “adventure on life now” and resolve to explore and discover the true necessities in life—not just for survival, but also for spiritual well-being.
Spirituality in Nature
As one of the pioneers of the transcendentalist movement, Thoreau believes that spending time in nature has the power to liberate an individual from society’s attempts to devalue the authenticity of the human spirit. Throughout Walden, he concerns himself with observing and appreciating the intricacies, mysteries, and transformations of the natural world. In the same way that the environment “continually transcends and translates itself,” conscious thought and spiritual enlightenment have transformative influences on an individual’s evolution.
By asserting that “nature puts no question, and answers none which we mortals ask,” Thoreau clarifies nature’s supreme influence over mortal beings and questions the individual’s capacity to harness desires. In investigating how the soul replenishes the earth after death, he reiterates that humans have no control over nature. For example, in the chapter “Sound,” Thoreau questions humanity’s role in maintaining earth’s diverse ecosystem:
[Birds] are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape nightly walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling.
In this passage, Thoreau encompasses the inherent spiritual connections between all living creatures. Here, birdsong illustrates the ephemerality and interdependence of conscious beings, and with this description, Thoreau describes his conceptions of both transient existence and reincarnation. Further, he explains that he has “an instinct toward a higher . . . spiritual life” as well as toward “a primitive rank and savage one” in which he spends his days “more as the animals do.” The earth itself has a soul that needs replenishing, in the same way that each individual—plant, human, or animal—does, and accordingly, Thoreau seeks enlightenment through both spiritual self-reflection and immersion in his natural surroundings.
Wisdom and Self-Reflection
Throughout Walden, Thoreau explores how self-reflection—from discovering new horizons through experience to absorbing nature’s beauty through meditation—leads to intellectual awareness. In order to conceptualize the origins of authentic wisdom, he considers several individuals he considers to be spiritually enlightened, especially poets and philosophers. Thoreau contends that “the intellect is a cleaver” because “it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things” and thus gives individuals freedom to consciously navigate the intricate layers of existence. Furthermore, he believes that a true philosopher “love[s] wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”
These markers of wisdom have the power to elevate one’s consciousness to a more profound spiritual realm. Thoreau discusses this belief in the following excerpt from Walden’s conclusion:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. . . . He will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.
With this advice, Thoreau suggests that wisdom is the key to unlocking the secrets to the mysterious universe. In addition, he argues that, with conscious effort, individuals must test physical and mental barriers by discovering “some life pasturing freely” in unknown places. Humans gain wisdom by pursuing valuable experiences and endeavoring to explore and engage with the natural world. By revealing the ways that forces of nature and conscious thought elevate the spirit, Thoreau inspires the reader to live simply as a means to enlightenment.