Henry David Thoreau


Many famous pantheists avoid labeling themselves “pantheists” for fear that they may be boxed into a limiting idea. That’s despite the fact that all the famous pantheists are radical freethinkers who tend to be agnostic rather than limited about defining divinity. It is thus often up to academics to apply this label onto individuals. This was even more the case in the 19th century when pantheism was used almost exclusively as a derogatory term. But that didn’t stop Henry David Thoreau.

When Thoreau’s publisher complained about his “defiant Pantheism” limiting his readership, Thoreau retorted that it couldn’t be avoided,

“…since I was born to be a pantheist.” 

Thoreau’s rare self-identification with pantheism was on display in his most famous book, Walden where he declared,

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” 

He was fervent in his idea that divinity is here and now, not elsewhere:

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” 

Thoreau was a reader of Eastern philosophy and hoped that religion would one day become obsolete. He was passionate about the love of nature taking its place:

“The country is full of this superstition, so that when one enters a village, the church, not only really but from association, is the ugliest looking building in it, because it is the one in which human nature stoops the lowest and is most disgraced. Certainly, such temples as these shall erelong cease to deform the landscape.” 

He preached a gospel of nature:

“All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself.” 

In Walden’s most famous passage, Thoreau described his experience of withdrawing alone to the wilderness while the rest of the world was busy organizing cities and societies:

“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 practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” 

He observed that people were in denial of their animal-like nature,

“The animal merely makes a bed, which he warms with his body in a sheltered place; but man, having discovered fire, boxes up some air in a spacious apartment, and warms that, instead of robbing himself, makes that his bed, in which he can move about divested of more cumbrous clothing, maintain a kind of summer in the midst of winter, and by means of windows even admit the light and with a lamp lengthen out the day.” 

He thus advises people to get back to the basics,

“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”

He was somewhat of a self-help guru of his time with a long list of gems:

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” 
 “You cannot dream yourself into a character: you must hammer and forge yourself into one.” 
“Be yourself- not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be.” 
 “Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.” 

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” 

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” 

“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.” 
 “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.” 

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

Thoreau is considered a naturalist and has become a major inspiration for preservationists and modern environmentalists worldwide:

“What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

Much like Spinoza, Thoreau believed the path toward the divine involved the knowledge of our nature:

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” 
“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.” 
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” 

Again much like Spinoza (and Nietzsche, Rumi and others), Thoreau advises against getting caught up with dogmatic morality:

“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.” 

He was a big picture thinker, a trait common among pantheists:

“The universe is wider than our views of it.” 

Also common among pantheists is radical freethinking. He shared some of his ideas in his other most famous work, Civil Obedience. His call for “civil obedience” wasn’t just words. “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,” he said. Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his delinquent poll tax due to his passionate opposition to slavery and recent wars. He would later become a great inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” 
“…The church, the state, the school, the magazine, think they are liberal and free! It is the freedom of a prison-yard.” 
“All good things are wild and free.”

Thoreau loved his isolation from other people and from how most other people think. As a result, he painted a picture of himself as a happy person:

“Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”

Despite having little money and not being considered a ‘successful’ man, he declared himself to be as wealthy as anybody:

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little” 

“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence. Well, anything for variety. I am ready to try this for the next ten thousand years, and exhaust it. How sweet to think of! my extremities well charred, and my intellectual part too, so that there is no danger of worm or rot for a long while. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.” 

Indeed, when the pantheist, Henry David Thoreau, died in 1862, he left us all his great wealth.

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