Several years ago I saw a photo on Instagram in which a playboy-esque lifestyle guru was sitting on a private plane, surrounded by sexy women in bikinis, piles of money, bottles of champagne, and a cache of semi-automatic rifles.
The caption under the photo?
Most men live lives of quiet desperation.
The aphorism is a paraphrase of what Henry David Thoreau famously wrote in Walden (the actual quote begins “The mass of men live lives…”).
Anyone with even a pretty cursory understanding of Thoreau’s life and philosophy knows that such a hedonistic, materialistic, jet-setting lifestyle isn’t exactly what he had in mind with that line.
Yet while his oft-quoted observation is not typically used in contexts quite as incongruous as that, it is still thrown around a lot in ways that don’t align with the philosopher’s own intention.
So what did Thoreau mean, anyway? And if a private plane isn’t necessary to make an escape, how can men truly avoid living a life of quiet desperation?
The Desperate Treadmill of Desire
Thoreau’s famous quote — “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation” — is most frequently used as a reason for following one’s passion and achieving a life which avoids the mediocrity of playing it small and attains to extra-ordinary success. And indeed, another one of Thoreau’s most frequently quoted lines is this:
“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.”
Less quoted, however, is the way Thoreau defined “success”:
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal,—that is your success.”
True success in Thoreau’s view thus cannot be understood in terms of monetary or conventional values, or even in the kinds of epic adventures that show well on Instagram.
A dedicated homebody, he rarely traveled far from home. He refused to dedicate himself full-time to his father’s pencil manufacturing business, though he possessed the mechanical acumen and inventiveness that could have turned him into something of an industrial magnate. Instead, he structured his life to allow for as little work, and as much writing and meditative leisure as possible. And even when it came to that writing, while he did care about his works being read and praised (at least by those he respected), he was unwilling to alter them in order to court a broader audience. Indeed, Thoreau’s friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, thought that if his protégé had one flaw, it was a lack of ambition.
Yet in some ways this criticism misses the mark. For while Thoreau wasn’t ambitious for the traditional status markers held up by society, he was ambitious for something else: life. Life at its very essence. Life in its fullest form.
Approaching the world with imaginative openness, Thoreau lived for intense insight and for direct experience; life was not to be experienced second hand. He was ever on the hunt for the sublime and transcendent, and the wild that hid not only beneath civilization, but in a man’s own spirit. His aim was to know himself, and to preserve this self sovereign in the face of the pressure to conform to deadening conventionalities.
This was essentially an inward journey, rather than an outward one, and in fact, externals could often get in the way of the quest.
Desperation, Thoreau thought, came from having too many wants. The problem with the desire for externalities is that they ever multiply and never reach an end; the fulfillment of one merely begets the itch for another. This puts men on what modern scientists call the “hedonic treadmill”; once you make more money, or get a new possession, or reach a goal, it at first makes you happier, but then you adapt to the new circumstances. You’ve risen a level, but so have your expectations, so that your happiness falls right back to where it was in the first place. You then seek for another “hit” of pleasure, only to become similarly desensitized to it. And on the cycle goes; you always seem to be running after something, but you’re really just running in place, stuck in a hamster wheel of desire. Social theorist Gregg Easterbrook astutely calls this process of getting what we want, but never feeling like we have enough, “abundance denial.”
Compounding this cycle of dissatisfaction — and the desperation it produces — is the fact that attaining external desires often costs money. Money that can only be procured in trade for one’s time and labor. And this frequently isn’t the only payment required: the work one must perform frequently demands compromises to one’s individual values, principles, and dreams. It demands a loss of independence; even the entrepreneur must defer to the whims of the marketplace.
Thus, the more you want, the more you have to work to pay for it, the less autonomous you become, and the further removed you get from the beating heart of life.
Thoreau thus rightly argued that “the cost of a thing” was not simply a matter of its price tag, but “the amount of what I will call life, which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
The solution to the endless, fruitless striving after that which doesn’t satisfy, Thoreau postulated, is to simplify your wants — to separate conveniences and comforts from necessities, and pare down to the fundamentals. This project was, of course, the very purpose of the philosopher’s experiment at Walden pond:
“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.”
So, if desperation is born from ever seeking more, and the solution is to learn to be content with less, then the one question that remains is this:
How do you do that?
The Art of Raising the Little Into the Large
“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.”
The above is another of Thoreau’s most famous quotes. And another where the kernel of its meaning is often missed.
To suck the marrow out of life often conjures up an image of outwardly epic strivings — far-flung adventures and extravagant endeavors of great daring-do.
Yet the marrow of a bone is what is within it — the life inside the external structure of things.
The marrow is the sustenance that is left after the bone has been picked clean of its obvious meat, and tossed aside by those unwilling to put in the effort to extract what still remains.
A commitment to getting at the marrow of life was Thoreau’s secret to being content with simplicity; he dug deeper into what was already there, but typically overlooked. He found treasures in that which costs nothing at all, declaring that “All good things are wild and free.”
While others looked for the extraordinary outside the ordinary, Thoreau found it in the ordinary. He had the ability to make the everyday epic.
Or as he told a friend, it is the art of genius to raise the little into the large.
Here are three ways Thoreau practiced this desperation-crushing art:
Use Your Senses to Discover Worlds Within Worlds
“How much virtue there is in simply seeing.”
“We find only the world we look for.”
Beginning from when he was in college, and continuing throughout his life, Thoreau required a long walk in nature each day to maintain his physical and emotional equilibrium. While he often took these walks along familiar routes, they remained perennially fresh. Thoreau not only went out equipped, as Emerson notes, with “an old music book to press plants” under his arm and “in his pocket, his diary and pencil, a spy glass for birds, microscope, jack-knife and twine,” he always brought his highly alert, fully awake senses along too. Through them he became acutely attentive to the environment, able to take in everything around him, and notice details the other citizens of Concord, Massachusetts missed.
Thoreau was very visual, and didn’t take the gift of sight for granted; declaring that “in the full, clear sense of the word, we do not see,” he believed that to become truly observant required moving beyond passive looking towards cultivating “a separate intention of the eye”:
“Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray, as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them . . . We do not realize how far and widely, or how near and narrowly we are to look. The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are for this reason concealed from us all our lives.”
Through the deliberate openness of his vision, Thoreau would survey the sparkle of moonlit snow in winter, the faintest budding of flowers and leafing of trees in the spring, the luminous sunsets of summer, and the “autumnal tints” of fall. He had an extrasensory feel for when one season was beginning to transition into another, and when the next had truly “arrived” — noting on May 18th of one year, for example, how the landscape had suddenly gotten “a new life and light infused into it,” and that it had taken “but one summer day to fetch the summer in.”
Thoreau was fascinated not only by the way the landscape changed by the season, but even by the week and day, observing that the “different states of our meadows” always had something slightly new to display to the watchful eye. Each moment was continually dynamic and alive, waiting to be captured by he who knew the art of seeing.
The primitive-prizing philosopher’s sight wasn’t the only one of his senses that was heightened. He loved to smell wafts of wild grapes on the breeze, and could track a fox by its scent alone. His highly tuned ears produced what biographer Robert D. Richardson describes as an “unusual attentiveness to sounds of all kinds, the sound of a storm, a piano playing ‘the Battle of Prague,’ noises made by ice, church bells, crickets, evening revelry, cocks crowing.”
This sensuousness extended to Thoreau’s sense of touch, to a body that he “inhabited . . . with inexpressible satisfaction.” Thoreau liked to squeeze pokeberries and allow their purple juice to run over his fingers. He enjoyed ice skating, even in the middle of a snowstorm, for the feeling of frigid air bracing his face and the sensation of zipping gracefully through space “like a new creature, a deer perhaps.” On his long hikes in the woods, he often stripped off his clothes to feel the fresh air and sunlight on his skin, and would wade lengthwise through rivers in a similar state of undress, half walking and half swimming along the shore. He considered such outings as luxurious as anything the famously decadent ancient Romans could possibly have indulged in.
Thoreau’s ability to find his “ordinary” surroundings perpetually interesting was driven by the fact that he was, as a friend put it, “alive from top to toe with curiosity.” He mind was ever set to “discovery,” and he perpetually sought to find worlds within worlds — realms that only revealed themselves to the patient and persistent. For example, when he realized that the frogs which initially scattered when approaching a pond would reappear if he quietly waited long enough, he fairly camped out on its shores to observe more about their behavior. A neighbor recalled the scene with utter befuddlement:
“Why, one morning I went out in my field across there to the river, and there, beside that little old mud pond, was standing Da-a-vid Henry, and he wasn’t doin’ nothin’ but just standin’ there—lookin’ at that pond, and when I came back at noon, there he was standin’ with his hands behind him just lookin’ down into that pond, and after dinner when I come back again if there wasn’t Da-a-vid standin’ there just like as if he had been there all day, gazin’ down into that pond, and I stopped and looked at him and I says, ‘Da-a-vid Henry, what air you a-doin’?’ And he didn’t turn his head and he didn’t look at me. He kept on lookin’ down at that pond, and he said, as if he was thinkin’ about the stars in the heavens, ‘Mr. Murray, I’m a-studyin’—the habits —of the bullfrog!’ And there that darned fool had been standin’ —the livelong day—a-studyin’—the habits—of the bull-frog!”
Thoreau’s joy in the ordinary was also fueled by a boyish sense of wonder he never outgrew — a belief that nothing is truly commonplace, that “Nothing is cheap and coarse, neither dewdrops or snowflakes.” Every man was surrounded by the divine; as he exulted after an ice storm: “God exhibits himself to the walker in a frosted bush today, as much as in a burning one to Moses of old.”
True joy and excitement could be had, he argued, for those willing to make the small effort to come at their everyday landscape in a slightly different way, and thus raise the little details in the environment into large spurs of satisfying sublimity:
“It is only necessary to behold thus the least fact or phenomenon, however familiar, from a point a hair’s breadth aside from our habitual path or routine, to be overcome, enchanted by its beauty and significance . . . To perceive freshly, with fresh sense, is to be inspired . . . My body is all sentient. As I go here or there, I am tickled by this or that I come in contact with, as if I touched the wires of a battery. I can generally recall — have fresh in my mind — several scratches last received. These I continually recall to mind, reimpress, and harp upon. The age of miracles is each moment thus returned . . .
We get only transient and partial glimpses of the beauty of the world. Standing at the right angle, we are dazzled by the colors of the rainbow in colorless ice. From the right point of view, every storm and every drop in it is a rainbow . . . I have seen an attribute of another world and condition of things. It is a wonderful fact that I should be affected, and thus deeply and powerfully, more than by aught else in all my experience.”
Find Adventure in Your Backyard
“A traveler! I love this title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such. His profession is the best symbol of our life. Going from ________ to _______; is the history of every one of us.”
While Thoreau celebrated the title of traveler, the journeys he had in mind had little to do with the covering of physical distance.
Like another writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, Thoreau had scant desire for traditional, outward travel, because the richness of his inner life provided a landscape for inexhaustibly interesting explorations. The voyages of self-discovery and self-conquest, he thought, were the most interesting journeys a man could take, and he thus defined “travel” and discovering new lands as those times in which you “think new thoughts, and have new imaginings. In the spaces of thought are the reaches of land and water over which men go and come.” As he further explained, “for I measure distance inward and not outward. Within the compass of a man’s ribs there is space and scene enough for any biography.”
The most important migration a man could make, Thoreau thought, was towards the “West.” By this he didn’t mean the actual trek then being made by contemporary pioneers; rather, “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild.” The primitive wildness Thoreau sought represented those qualities of soul untrammeled by civilization; a man’s original ideas, and the kind of self-trust that allowed him to stick with these convictions.
Such wildness, Thoreau believed, could as easily be discovered close to home as in far-flung lands, arguing that “It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves . . . I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wilderness than in some recess in Concord.”
Thoreau thus seldom traveled far from home, his aforementioned daily rambles sufficient “to shake off the village” so that “every walk is a sort of crusade . . . to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.” Because of the openness of his eyes and penchant for ever finding new details in the environment, these “neighborhood” walks never grew stale:
“there is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.”
Thoreau did occasionally visit neighboring states, taking canoe trips and hikes into the true wilderness of places like New Hampshire and Maine. And while these excursions were modestly challenging adventures in and of themselves, his imagination, his ability to find the sublime and mysterious even in the commonplace, allowed him to elevate such trips to the even more exotic and exciting. For Thoreau, canoeing down the Concord River could sincerely be compared to paddling the Nile, journeying to a neighboring town could feel like entering “terra in-cognita,” and all trips, no matter the distance from home, could feel like polar expeditions and savor of the heroic.
Thoreau wasn’t delusional; he wasn’t a pathetic Walter Mitty-type envisioning his life to be more epic than it was. It was just that his senses were so keen, his imagination so easily fired, his thrill switch so readily triggered, that exploring his own backyard really did feel like an epic, soul-stirring adventure. A nearby hike was enough to renew his sense of self-trust; a camping trip one state over was sufficient for a voyage into wildness. A passport stamp wasn’t needed to continue his central journey into the fundamental forces of nature and infinite mysteries of spirit.
Make Smaller Symbolic Moves That Stand for Something Greater
“Though I am old enough to have discovered that the dreams of youth are not to be realized in this state of existence yet I think it would be the next greatest happiness always to be allowed to look under the eyelids of time and contemplate the perfect steadily with the clear understanding that I do not attain to it.”
Thoreau’s adventures didn’t have to be grand to be satisfying because their power derived from their symbolic quality. They stood for something bigger and generated meaning over and beyond their actual parts.
This was never as true as when it came to Thoreau’s stay at Walden.
To us moderns, Thoreau’s sojourn along the shores of Walden pond seems like the kind of big, dramatic move many men wish they could undertake, but which seems impossibly out of reach. After all, even in Thoreau’s own time, it was a rare thing for a man to break off from normal life to pare down his possessions and spend two years living in a tiny cabin, relishing the solitude, growing his own food, and communing with nature.
Yet in truth, Thoreau’s Walden wasn’t really so isolated, primitive, or wild as we typically imagine. Compared to the overland pioneers, to other writers who were actually homesteading out West or sailing across oceans, the philosopher’s endeavor was fairly tame. His cabin was in sight of a well-traveled road, 500 yards away from a major railway, and just two miles from Concord. Nor was Thoreau’s existence so solitary; he frequently received visitors, with as many as thirty people cramming into his cabin at one time. It wasn’t even an exercise in complete self-reliance: Emerson owned the land upon which Thoreau’s cabin sat, his mother and sisters often brought him food, and he would regularly go home to have dinner with his family.
Critics would point to such “laxities” as proof that Thoreau’s retreat from society was not “pure” or “authentic,” and that the philosopher himself was something of a poser.
Yet the moderate nature of his endeavor was part of its point all along. Thoreau saw his experiment at Walden as a kind of microcosm, a simulation, a laboratory, which would show that recovering a little wildness was something anyone could do anywhere — that it didn’t require a complete retreat and separation from society. He wanted to demonstrate “it to be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life — though in the midst of an outward civilization” [emphasis mine].
As Richardson explains:
“Every aspect of the move to Walden was symbolic and representative. The move itself was an emancipation from town and family, building the cabin was proof of his ability to shelter himself, growing beans showed he could feed himself, and have something left over.”
Walden was a symbol that showed a 28-year-old Thoreau, who had drifted after college and hadn’t yet lived entirely on his own, that he could live more independently; he may not have become 100% self-reliant in the process, yet the success of the endeavor did ultimately come down to a considerable amount of his own effort and commitment.
Walden was also a symbol that one’s mindset mattered more than one’s geographic location, and that wildness and nonconformity could be had wherever you were. Thoreau’s “all-important point,” Richardson contends, is “that the primitive and frontier life is an inner, personal attitude toward life, an attitude that does not require a primitive physical setting on an actual frontier . . . It is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Thoreau showed that regardless of circumstances, you can find whatever you want to find; “for the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies,” he wrote of Walden. “It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”
Finally, Walden was a symbol that showed that an experiment that’s not perfectly “pure” can actually be more fruitful that something unadulterated. While at Walden, Thoreau was able to live a life that was both very outdoorsy and very meditative; the combination of security and solitude, nature and comfort, isolation and socialization, proved enormously productive for his writing; the only two full books he published during his lifetime were both shaped during this period.
The symbolic experiment of Walden not only proved something to Thoreau himself, it also showed others that a lifestyle which, if not wholly wild, was closer to nature and closer to the bone of simplicity, was possible. It was a private experiment, that had both personal and public implications.
Thoreau intentionally created a myth out of his Walden experience — a narrative in which the details of who, what, where, and why matter less than the overarching lessons the story imparts. “Some incidents in my life seem far more allegorical than actual,” he said. And that’s not a bad thing. The power which resonates out of small symbols can be very large indeed.
“There are in each the seeds of a heroic ardor, which need only to be stirred in with the soil where they lie.”
“I don’t want to feel as if my life were a sojourn any longer. It is time now that I begin to live.”
Avoiding a life of quiet desperation doesn’t mean living exactly like Thoreau did. He not only worked in symbols, his whole life was a symbol — a type from which men can draw general lessons.
The greatest of these lessons is to learn the art of raising the little into the large. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on big, outwardly-facing goals, or a love for far-ranging travel, or full-time employment in order to be content with a very quiet, leisure-filled existence out in nature and close to home. But it does mean learning to be satisfied with that which is “wild and free,” so that anything beyond the simple essentials of life can be pursued out of autonomous choice, rather than compulsive craving.
When you genuinely feel that the things within your own spirit, and in your own backyard, are enough to bring you boundless joy and excitement, when you’re able to be by yourself without being bored, then you have the power to pursue ambitious goals without being tempted to compromise your principles to obtain them. You’ll have the power to work only to cover necessities, and/or because you enjoy it, rather than as a route to more possessions or worldly status. You’ll have the power to step off the treadmill of desire and feel the inherently rich abundance with which you’re already surrounded.
This power begins from learning the art of seeing, and opening up your senses to experience more in your existing environment. You feel like you’ve seen it all, but you haven’t. The next time you’re standing by a tree, narrow your sight to really study the bark. Or if you’re sitting in the grass, look into it. You’ll realize you can’t remember the last time you actually looked at something like that. You’ll realize you probably don’t notice half of the details in a landscape. There’s lots more to discover out there.
And this isn’t just true of nature, either. It’s likely been a long time since you tuned into the emotional treasures that can be found in friendship. Or stopped to contemplate the full depth of your love for your wife and children. Pausing to contemplate and soak in such “little” things grows them into ample and fulfilling sustenance for the heart.
Once you re-learn the language of awe and wonder, you can start finding adventures in your own backyard. You’ll discover that a hike close to home, or a swim in a local lake, can feel far more exploratory, rejuvenating, and even transcendent than you ever suspected.
Hopefully this will spur you to experiment with other small moves that turn out to have outsized effects. Every internal conviction should find a way to be externally expressed, and it matters less how you do it, than the fact you do it, period. Don’t get hung up on whether something is pure or perfect, just do something. Instead of requiring that an experiment encompass everything about a value you wish to express, allow it to simply be representative of that value; actions in any form are better than intentions kept inert, for “we want not completeness but intensity of life.” You’ll come to realize that little things can have big symbolic value — both to yourself, and to others.
Joining something like a CrossFit class will probably get your healthier, but its representative power, the way it will demonstrate to yourself that you take physicality seriously, and are willing to take action on an intention, will be even more significant. It will show your kids you take exercise seriously, too. Saying no just once to your boss’s unreasonable demands may not be an earth-shattering decision, but it will become a symbol to yourself that your assertiveness muscle can still be flexed. A co-worker may see you act, and be emboldened to make their own stand as well.
The effects of a symbolic move always radiate out; when a man acts on his convictions, even in the smallest ways, “the contagion of his example unhinges the universe.” Case in point: two centuries later, we’re still talking about the time some guy lived in a tiny cabin by a little pond for a couple years.
So before you start casting about for big goals, new possessions, and exotic places to travel — see what you can extract by diving deeper into the existing structure of your life. Tap into the marrow everyone else ignores.
“Do what you love,” Thoreau is often quoted as saying. But what follows is just as important:
“Know your own bone; gnaw it still.”
Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind by Robert D. Richardson
The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding
Last updated: March 22, 2017