A path through a forest with the sun beaming through.

Why did Thoreau go to the woods? Did he follow—or fight—his intuition about getting away from it all?

A major subject of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is the philosophical reasons he decided to move to the woods. He explains that he wanted to live a simpler life, connect with nature, spend time in solitude, and carve out his own path.

Read more to learn about the four ideas that motivated Thoreau to move out of Concord and into a tiny cabin on Walden Pond.

#1: He Wanted to Live a Simpler Life

Why did Thoreau go to the woods? First, Thoreau explains that the choices he made in moving to Walden were motivated by a desire to live more simply—and he doesn’t hesitate to say that he thinks his readers should simplify their lives, too. During the two years he lived in the woods, Thoreau chose a life of what he calls “voluntary poverty.” He reduced what he produced and consumed to just what was necessary for survival: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel.

(Shortform note: True to its name, Thoreau’s “voluntary poverty” was a choice. He came from a middle-class family, and he could afford to supplement the crops he grew with store-bought goods. He could also leave Walden when he felt like it. Some scholars argue that Thoreau was aware of the irony of his choosing a lifestyle that was imposed on others. But he also believed that it was important for people who had his advantages to recognize what life was like for the disadvantaged. He contended that by stopping our endless pursuit of material things, we can pay attention to what life is like for others.)

While Thoreau believed there is dignity in labor and in working to provide for oneself, he contended that people consume too much and work too much to pay for it. He explains that people can live on much less than they think possible. Then, with that change in perspective, they can stop overworking themselves to afford a large home, a vast family farm, fashionable clothes, or even an expensive education. Thoreau contends that the drive to acquire these and other material things results in unacceptable costs in terms of time: time that we give up for truly living in order to obtain possessions that aren’t necessary and don’t fulfill us.

(Shortform note: Thoreau’s reservations about exchanging our time for our necessities, homes, and material possessions seem to anticipate modern concerns about the trap of the middle class. In Having and Being Had, Eula Biss writes that we buy into the values of the capitalist system that determines what our time is worth in terms of the money and things for which it can be exchanged. Life under such an economic system is compromised and frustrating, Biss explains. But few of us can figure out how to disentangle ourselves from the system—even Thoreau couldn’t withdraw himself completely from the modern economy.)

#2: He Wanted to Connect With Nature

A second reason that Thoreau moved to Walden Pond was to live a life attuned to the natural world, rather than set to the rhythm of life in town. He writes that modern society alienates us from the natural world. But staying in touch with the natural world—with its endless cycle of seasonal change and growth—can inspire us, awaken us, and sustain us both physically and spiritually, he contends. 

To Thoreau, connecting with nature wasn’t just about watching the sunrise or listening to the owls. He regarded the time he spent learning from nature as the most important part of his spiritual life. He even considered bathing in the pond every morning as a “religious exercise.” Thoreau writes that we can see great dignity and beauty everywhere in the natural world—even in its small and mundane events.

(Shortform note: For Thoreau, the route between nature and civilization was short, both literally and figuratively. Experts say that his attitude toward nature as a place to find spiritual nourishment reflects broader changes in cultural attitudes about the natural world at the time. Around the time Walden was published, Americans were beginning to regard nature as a place where they could seek peace rather than a place where wildness was to be subdued, as the Puritans had believed when they arrived in New England. The Puritans took the Bible at its word when it described the wilderness as “cursed” and a “kind of Hell” on Earth. They believed they were called to reshape the New England wilderness into a paradise instead.)

#3: He Wanted to Spend Time in Solitude

Thoreau’s third motivation for living in the woods was to experience solitude, which he defined as spending time by himself without feeling alone. According to Thoreau, solitude enables us to find meaning and spiritual purpose. True solitude is also an antidote to a kind of loneliness that Thoreau contends is far too common in society. He argues that people feel more lonely when they spend too much time in society than when they spend time alone, deeply absorbed in their work, in the way that farmers or students become immersed in their tasks. That said, while Thoreau sought solitude, he also believed that he could reap the benefits of time spent alone without being a hermit.

(Shortform note: Thoreau’s decision to seek a life of solitude—as other Transcendentalists were turning to communal living—was unusual. Historians note that, in Thoreau’s time, few people chose to live alone. The self-sufficiency characteristic of the traditional New England way of life was built on family labor and collaboration. Thoreau, for example, lived in the Emerson household as a gardener, handyman, and babysitter. Similarly, throughout his life, he supported and was supported by his friends and family in Concord. The town offered him a community of care that enabled him to spend time in thought, alone, when he needed to.)

#4: He Wanted to Carve Out His Own Path

Thoreau’s final motivation for going to Walden involved his confidence in his own choices and his belief that he needed to trust his intuition: He felt that moving to the woods was the right choice for him, so he followed his own path. Thoreau contends that we’re all capable of living moral and meaningful lives if we follow our intuitions and honor our convictions. He writes that there are “higher laws” than those of human society. By distancing himself from the city, even by a short walk through the woods, he could more easily live according to his own values. 

Thoreau also champions self-reliance, not only in providing for your own material needs but also in enriching yourself spiritually. He argues that every person needs to seek their own path toward spiritual fulfillment, as an individual independent in their thoughts and actions.

(Shortform note: By living at Walden Pond for two years, Thoreau tried to achieve what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about in his essay “Self-Reliance”: the ideal of avoiding conformity and following his own instincts. Some scholars say that it was during the two years at Walden that Thoreau stepped out of Emerson’s shadow and rejected Emerson’s idealism in favor of something more practical. One writer notes that the degree to which we’re free to pursue our own paths is determined by factors that are largely outside of our control. She writes that if Emerson’s idealism seems too optimistic—to Thoreau or to modern readers—it might be because his self-reliance depends on having the social and material resources to be independent.)

Why Did Thoreau Go to the Woods? 4 Ways Walden Drew Him In

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

One thought on “Why Did Thoreau Go to the Woods? 4 Ways Walden Drew Him In

  • March 17, 2024 at 9:53 pm

    Very nice article, lotsa new material I was unaware of.

    Appreciative the work, and thank you for presenting it.

    Was first exposed to Thoreau in high school, our “reader” included sections from famous books. His description of an epic battle between ant groups, written like a Homeric classic, was unique and unusual.

    Since it was the revolutionary mid-1960’s, and I was just wakening intellectually at age 16, was hooked for life.

    So took to heart his call:

    “Life is but the stream in which I go a fishing”.

    Thank you again.


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