Thoreau and Self-Reliance

Mind Integrity by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do you consider yourself self-reliant? Maybe you want to become more self-reliant? Do you like the idea of living life on your own terms? Does the idea of being dependent on someone or something disturb you? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you’re someone who needs to take a look at the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau was one of the leaders of the self-reliant movement in the United States. He is best known for his book “Walden”, which has become the bible of self-reliance for environmentalists, iconoclasts and anyone with a love of nature and love of themselves and their unique way of life.

Thoreau lived at a unique time in history. Nineteenth century America was in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. The mechanization of labor was bringing great changes to the young nation. Factories and mills were springing up everywhere, replacing the small workshops and smithies that once manufactured goods. The populations of cities and towns were exploding, as people flooded in from the countryside looking for jobs in the new mills and factories. A new middle class was arising due to the managerial positions now available. This middle class wanted all the trappings of their new found wealth. They wanted houses and they wanted possessions to fill those houses. Thoreau looked at all these developments with distrust and disgust. He saw friends who thought they were free but were actually enslaved. Yes, they lived in fine houses, but they didn’t own them. Instead, the houses were actually owned by banks and mortgage companies and the people in the houses lived to pay those mortgages. The same was true of the possessions in those houses. Thoreau saw an entire generation becoming dulled and insensitive to what actually was important in life.

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Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson


As a response, Thoreau went into the woods to try and live as self-sufficiently as possible. He built his own cabin. He made what possessions he needed and what he couldn’t make, he traded for using his own labor. For over two years, he lived his life in his own terms, free and independent, owing no other person. The result of this two year experiment in self-reliance was “Walden”, a chronical of his two years living off the land in a nearly self-sufficient state.

Today, people read the lessons that Thoreau taught in “Walden” in order to learn how to develop greater self-reliance in their own lives. For anyone interested in the ideas of independence and freedom, Henry David Thoreau is a must.

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