This Above All Else: to thine self be true

Surprisingly, “Conclusion” has little to do with Walden Pond and the external world that Thoreau has explored during his two-year stay. Instead, it turns inward to the spiritual journey that Thoreau has made during those two years. It is in one sense a call for self-reliance, but to a far greater extent it is a call for self-exploration.

Thoreau argues that we set arbitrary limits on ourselves because of the world’s rules and restrictions, but if we look inward we find the challenges and opportunities are endless:

"Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find
A thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered.
Travel them, and be
Expert in home-cosmography."

Another common mistake according to Thoreau is to sacrifice our own truths to a false sense of patriotism:

Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice. Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.

Isn’t there a saying that says that the more things change, the more they stay the same? It’s hard to imagine that this essay wasn’t written yesterday, not nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.

Thoreau also agrees with Emerson that "Society is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members:”

A saner man would have found himself often enough "in formal opposition" to what are deemed "the most sacred laws of society," through obedience to yet more sacred laws, and so have tested his resolution without going out of his way. It is not for a man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he find himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet with such.

This conspiracy, unless we are aware of it, prevents us from truly discovering ourselves. We simply go along with the crowd, never bothering to discover our own truths, the only possible truths. Only when we are not afraid to be different, not afraid to follow our own truths, can we truly hope to find truth.

Another barrier to self-discovery is dull, endless repetition:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.

No matter how rewarding a job or experience may seem, it can become a trap, cutting us off from possible new experiences. We must be willing to shed these restraints, no matter how comfortable, in order to seek greater truths.

If we advance confidently, though, we can begin to fulfill our dreams:

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. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.

Believing in our dreams is the first step toward fulfilling them. Without that first step, it is impossible to attain them. After taking that first step, we begin to pass invisible barriers and with new hope are on the way to attaining them.

According to Thoreau, simplifying our life and shedding the unnecessary makes it easier to fulfill our dreams:

In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

When things no longer possess us, we can begin to see what is really important to us and, having gained that insight, begin to make our dreams come true.

Too often people dismiss their dreams because they’re “foolish” or “impractical:”

Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring.

Judging from my thirty years of teaching, “common sense,” or even uncommon sense, is commonly missing. No reason to be embarrassed about following an impractical dream, very few people have a clue about what they’re doing or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Do the best you can and that’s good enough.

Nor should you limit your dreams because you’re just an ordinary guy:

Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.

Be the best you you can be, and that should be good enough for anyone.

Still, many people seem desperate to be “successful:”

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

If “success” were really defined in their own terms, there would be little shame in feeling a need to succeed, but when it is defined in society’s terms it assures most people will be frustrated. Far better to set your own goals and attempt to live up to them.

Even if you don’t have much, you can be successful and happy:

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.

Unless you love yourself, unless you have a positive self-image, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be successful. No matter what your station, you can be happy because happiness is internal, not external. An infinite amount of “things” cannot make you happy:

Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me.

As long as you control your own thoughts, you control yourself. Our thoughts are more important than any material possessions.

If you live the simple life, you will have to focus on the most important things because that is what you have:

It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. 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.

If money were required to buy a single necessity of the soul why would so many religious orders require vows of poverty? Wealth is more likely to bring distractions than clarity to one’s life:

I delight to come to my bearings — not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may — not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.

If Thoreau found the Nineteenth Century “restless, nervous, bustling, trivial” can you imagine how he would feel about Twentieth Century Boston?

As Thoreau points out, most of us do not live up to our true potential:

We know not where we are. Beside, we are sound asleep nearly half our time. Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an established order on the surface. There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean.

We sleep walk through life, bored by our expensive toys, unable to realize that we can be truly happy if we would but ignore the Country Western songs that would convince us that life is full of cheating hearts. (I know, I know, but what else could Thoreau have meant by “nasal twang?”)

Perhaps today is the day of our dreams, but:

Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

The ultimate barrier to fulfilling our dreams is simply our inability to recognize the opportunities. Believe in yourself and your possibilities and you have the potential to be another Thoreau.


You can find many excellent references to Thoreau’s Walden on the web. Here are a few sites I liked:

Henry D Thoreau Home Page


Thoreau Reader

Walden Woods Project