Excessively Simple: Thoreau’s Argument For Self-Reliance in the Wilderness

In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden he treats nature as a sanctuary and as a sort of Eden. Although his focus is mainly on economic follies, the subtext is a calling for a return to nature, with an emphasis on simplicity and self-reliance.  He talks about actual farmlands being a burden to man because the men become slaves to them. He calls his townsmen’s “misfortune…to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily required than got rid of” (Thoreau, 6).  Thoreau’s excerpt focused on society’s need to give up excess and luxury and accept the basic gifts of nature. He narrows down “the necessities of life for man…Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel” (Thoreau, 11). These four essential items are the what man are able to live off of, but he argues that man has taken advantage of them and are consuming an excessive amount and living in luxury.

Man is capable of surviving on the four essentials and only need turn to nature to find easily find them. In this sense, the wilderness is like Eden. Man does not need anything above what has already been bestowed upon the earth in resources. Thoreau calls for a return to a primitive living versus the “superfluously course labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (Thoreau, 7). As long as we are striving for anything beyond fundamental sustenance, we will be able to fully appreciate nature and form a true sense of identity. The endless toil because of our greediness causes that innate identity to be confused and lost amidst the struggle.

Thoreau also sees the permanent house as a negative separation between man and nature. Instead of our once primitive and nomadic lifestyle, we have “settled down on earth and forgotten heaven” (Thoreau, 29).  Although one would consider adequate shelter with creature comforts a type of heaven, Thoreau condemns it as a barrier from the Eden of nature. Thoreau treats civilization with a very negative attitude, preferring the solitude of self-reliance in the wilderness. I think his argument is very important in that it highlights some very valid issues of our lifestyles. I cannot personally say I would be willing to strip my life down to the four essentials and only live off of what is absolutely necessary for survival, but I do agree with his arguments for identity. The more our civilization grows, and consequently to higher our needs and wants become, I believe we are becoming disconnected from nature. A relationship with the wilderness is vital because being alone in the wild can teach someone what they are capable of living with, and without. This helps us define ourselves with relation to the earth achieve a greater sense of balance of Thoreau’s simplicity and our excess.


Thoreau, Henry D. Walden Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch./Art: Walden; Walking p. 5-70. pub. WW Norton 2008


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by lmc908 on October 13, 2011 at 9:12 am

    I agree with your argument that Thoreau is advocating simplicity and self-reliance. He also believes that these two concepts are necessary in order to attain wisdom and growth. He states that “none has been poorer in outward riches, non so rich in inward” than the great philosophers of the East (Thoreau 13). I believe this falls in line with what you mentioned about civilization hindering the development of our identity and our relationship with nature. As Thoreau states, “the so called comforts of life [are but] positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind” (Thoreau 13). This idea is still relevant today. The advancements in technology are being taken advantage of. No longer are they just used to better humanity; they are actually degrading humanity– they make men lazy, detached, and dependent. People prefer to stay indoors playing their video games over going outside and socializing or observing nature. This self-inflicted lock-down inhibits our growth as humans, intellectuals, and individuals.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: