6 Lessons from Walden | Henry David Thoreau

A Philosopher’s Guide to Living

Jack Yang
6 min readApr 4, 2021


Walden is a book that is very personal to me. It is one of the books I tried to read before but couldn’t fully comprehend its meaning. The first time I read Walden was in high school. As a teenager who was unsure what to do with his life, Walden made me very depressed because I couldn’t see the meaning of one’s existence and why striving for anything would matter in the grand scheme of things. Five years later, after I stepped into society for a while and tasted the different aspects of life, I picked up this book again (the exact book I kept since high school) and read it. This time, a completely different feeling hit me and I was filled with calm and awe. Even though I never forgot the lessons from five years ago, life itself gives me a different perspective on these things and I will share it in the following section. Different from all my other book reviews, this time I will quote the passages directly from the book directly and insert my interpretation of it because Thoreau captures the essences beautifully with his writing.

Score: 5/5

Who Should Read it? People who are interested in a minimalist lifestyle or simply wants to read a piece of great literature


1. We often buy not goods, but opinions of others.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

“Clothing, to come at once to the practical part of the question, perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility.”

“For he considers, not what is truly respectable, but what is respected.”

My Take: I see this mistake in many people, including myself. I used to spend a lot of money on designer and hype clothing for the simple reason to look rich and stylish in front of others so I have their respect. Looking back, those “fashionable” clothing I bought are not in the latest fashion trend only a year or two later, and those are dollars that serve better if I spend in other places, such as gifts for my closest friends. But such is consumerism. The goal is to keep people in the latest trends so that they would feed money into the giant machine of the economy.

2. You don’t spend money, you spend your life.

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

“When the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.”

My Take: This is an innovative perspective on spending money. Most people make money by committing days, months, and even years of your life to work. Many people are working to achieve a goal, whether that is a sports car, a beach-front house, or a shiny piece of designer clothing. However, those who do not stop to question their goals are like a hamster running on a spinning wheel. We should inspect our desires, combined with the previous lesson, whether we want that item for the sake of looking good or for the sake of true appreciation. If we spend our entire life chasing the prior, it is most likely we will not live a satisfying life and it is crucial to question our values before we throw our whole life away for vain respect.

3. We appreciate life by being present and calm.

“When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only get and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.”

“God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perceptual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.”

“For the most part, we allow only outlying and transient circumstances to make our occasions.”

My Take: The current moment is the convergence of the past and the future. Being present is to appreciate the beauty of the current moment. Our fears and pleasures all come from memories of the past and predictions of the future. For instance, we fear public speaking because we fear we might embarrass ourselves in the future. By fully immerse yourselves in the present moment, we will have a more realistic view of things instead of being altered by our biases. There is no good or bad, except our perception of it.

4. People often overlook wealth hidden in books.

“A man, any man, will go considerable out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding ae have assured us of; — and yet we learn to read only as far as easy reading.”

My Take: I cannot agree with this statement more. Books are wisdom from sages and experts over thousand years of history. As the saying “you are the average of 5 people you are surrounded by,” when reading, you are accompanied by the greatest minds in history. Yet, with the overwhelming of entertainment and social media, people have endless content to consume because those are fun, easy, and light. On the other hand, true reading requires a rigorous debate with the author or a critical self-examination, which is usually hard but rewarding.

5. Live Simply.

“In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex.”

“No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

My Take: Even though the word “minimalism” was not yet invented at Thoreau’s time, he was already living it. In a culture filled with consumption and egos, giving up those that do not matter to you is not easy but necessary for the cleanliness of the soul and meaningful life.

6. Cherish every moment that life presents.

Thoreau captures the beauty of the present moment perfectly and poetically through his words. Here are my favorite quotes on the subject. Enjoy.

“We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.”

“The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruits — not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.”

“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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Thank you for reading my summary. If you enjoy it, feel free to check out my other book reviews at https://jackyangzzh.medium.com/