On July 12, 1817, philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau was born. He is probably best known today for his book ‘Walden‘, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, as well as for his essay ‘Civil Disobedience‘, an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state.
“The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts (1854)
Thoreau may be the most quoted American author. Excerpts from his writings surface in American thought, conversation, even on t-shirts, posters and greeting cards. Henry David Thoreau was born and lived nearly throughout all his life in Concord, Massachusetts, a small town about twenty miles west of Boston. He received his education at the public school in Concord and at the private Concord Academy. He was sent to Harvard, where he did well and, despite having to drop out for several months for financial and health reasons, was graduated in the top half of his class in 1837.
Henry and his elder brother John taught school for a while but in 1842, John cut himself while shaving and died of lockjaw in his brother’s arms, an untimely death which traumatized the 25 year old Henry. He worked for several years as a surveyor and making pencils with his father, but at the age of 28 in 1845, wanting to write his first book, he went to Walden pond and built his cabin on land owned by his Concord neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson to live in the woods for 2 years. two years. This “experiment” in living on the outskirts of town was an intensive time of examination for Thoreau, as he drew close to nature and contemplated the final ends of his own life, which was otherwise at risk of ending in quiet desperation. Thoreau viewed his existential quest as a venture in philosophy, in the ancient Greek sense of the word, because it was motivated by an urgent need to find a reflective understanding of reality that could inform a life of wisdom.
Walden pond was a place for him to find solitude while he wrote, but for his ever-questioning mind it was also an experiment in self-reliance and living close to nature, which bore fruit in the 1854 publication of his literary masterpiece – obviously also entitled ‘Walden‘. All in all, Thoreau wrote on countless topics, often including poetry and anecdotes. In 1846 Thoreau was arrested and imprisoned in Concord for one night for nonpayment of his poll tax. This act of defiance, which later resulted in his ‘Civil Disobedience‘, was a protest against slavery and against the Mexican War, which Thoreau and other abolitionists regarded as a means to expand the slave territory. In principal, Thoreau had no objection to government taxes for highways and schools, which make good neighbors. But government, he charged, is too often based on expediency, which can permit injustice in the name of public convenience. The individual, as he insisted, is never obliged to surrender conscience to the majority or to the State. Therefore today Thoreau is more relevant than ever.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
From 1849 Thoreau earned his living as a surveyor, casual worker and lecturer. He kept raining against social injustice and slavery. In 1857 he met the militant opponent of slavery and guerrilla fighter John Brown, who waged a “private war” against slavery with his followers and was hanged two years later. Although Henry David Thoreau continued to favour non-violent resistance, he showed great respect for John Brown in essays and a poem which he even compared with Christ. He proved how serious he was about refusing slavery when, in 1851, he helped an escaped slave to flee to Canada.
Thoreau had become infected with tuberculosis in 1835, but the disease appeared only sporadically. In 1859 bronchitis was added after Thoreau had been out at night in stormy rain. After that, his health deteriorated visibly. In recent years he has worked on unpublished works (mainly The Maine Woods and Excursions). He wrote letters and diary entries until he became too weak. His friends were amazed at the serenity with which Thoreau looked forward to his end. Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis on 6 May 1862, at age 44. He never stopped looking into nature for ultimate Truth.
At yovisto academic video search you can learn more about Henry David Thoreau and his life around the shores of Walden Pond in Dr. Barry Wood’s (University of Houston) lecture.
References and further Readings:
-  The Walden Woods Project
-  Henry David Thoreau in the wikipedia
-  American Transcendentalism Web
-  Henry David Thoreau at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
-  The Thoreau Society
-  Henry David Thoreau at The Literature Network
-  Henry David Thoreau at Wikidata
-  Works of or about Henry David Thoreau
-  Timeline for Henry David Thoreau, via Wikidata