The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Tough Thoreau Quotes

My favorite Thoreau quote is: "Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine." It is a quote that Thoreau acolytes like academic Robert Pinsky and other Thoreau Society members will not be able to digest. My life has become such a counterfriction, whereas their lives have become the MACHINE.


Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. 
It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants.  The question is: what are we busy about?” 
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.

Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.

That I am under an aweful necessity to be what I am.

The dull and blundering behavior of clowns will as surely polish the writer at last as the criticism of men of thought.

Say the thing with which you labor—it is a waste of time for the writer to use his talents merely.  Be faithful to your genius—write in the strain that interests you most—Consult not the popular taste.
—Henry David Thoreau

It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live… lying, flattering, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes or his hat… making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day… I have traveled a great deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.
—HD Thoreau

The whole enterprise of this nation ... is totally devoid of interest to me ... It is not illustrated by a thought; it is not warmed by a sentiment; there is nothing in it which one should lay down his life for, nor even his gloves.
Let nothing come between you and the light.

If thousands are thrown out of employment, it suggests that they were not well employed. Why don't they take the hint?  It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants.  What are you industrious about?

Are you in want of amusement nowadays? Then play a little at the game of getting a living ... and don't sweat.

America is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is to be fought; but surely it cannot be freedom in a merely political sense that is meant.  Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant.  “Life Without Principle”

How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also.
—Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free.  They are the lovers of law and order who observe the law when the government breaks it.
—Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts”

It is the old error, which the church, the state, the school ever commit, choosing darkness rather than light, holding fast to the old and to tradition.  

No statue to be made of me.

Men are so generally spoiled by being so civil and well-disposed.  You can have no profitable conversation with them… It is possible for a man to wholly disappear and be merged in his manners.  The thousand and one gentlemen with whom I meet, I meet despairingly and but to depart from them, for I am not cheered by the hope of any rudeness from them.  A cross man, a coarse man, an eccentric man, a silent, a man who does not drill well,—of him there is some hope.  Your gentlemen, they are all alike.  They utter their opinions as if it was not a man that uttered them.

Routine, conventionality, manners, etc., etc,—how insensibly an undue attention to these dissipates and impoverishes the mind, robs it of its simplicity and strength, emasculates it!

After lecturing twice I feel that I am in danger of cheapening myself by trying to become a successful lecturer, i.e. to interest my audiences… I feel that the public demand an average man,—average thoughts and manners,—not originality, not even absolute excellence.  You cannot interest them except as you are like them and sympathize with them.

Who can be serene in a country where both rulers and ruled are without principle?  The remembrance of the baseness of politicians spoils my walks. 

What does education often do?  It makes a straight-cut ditch out of a free, meandering brook.

If our scholars would lead more earnest lives, we should not witness those lame conclusions to their ill-sown discourses, but their sentences would pass over the ground like loaded rollers and not mere hollow and wooden ones, to press in the seed and make it germinate. 

Those authors are successful who do not write down to others, but make their own taste and judgment their audience… The artist must work with indifferency.  Too great interest vitiates his work.

It is surprising how much, from the habit of regarding writing as an accomplishment, is wasted on form.  A very little information or wit is mixed up with a great deal of conventionalism in the style of expressing it, as with a sort of preponderating paste or vehicle.  Some life is not simply expressed, but a long-winded speech is made, with an occasional attempt to put a little life into it.

The mind tastes but few flavors in the course of a year.  We are visited by but few thoughts which are worth entertaining, and we chew the cud of these unceasingly. 

What is religion?  That which is never spoken.   
—Henry David Thoreau, A Writer’s Journal

Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.
How can we expect a harvest of thought who have not had a seed-time of character. 
Live life close to the bone.
Henry David Thoreau

For a man to act himself, he must be perfectly free; otherwise he is in danger of losing all sense of responsibility or of self-respect.

I must not lose any of my freedom by being a farmer and landholder.  Most who enter on any profession are doomed men.  The world might as well sing a dirge over them forthwith. 

This discipline [education], which we allow to be the end of life, should not be one thing in the schoolroom, and another in the street. 
But I would say to my fellows, once for all, As long as possible live free and uncommitted.  It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or county jail.

I hate the present modes of living and getting a living.  Farming and shopkeeping and working at a trade or profession are all odious to me.  I should relish getting my living in a simple, primitive fashion.  The life which society proposes to me to live is so artificial and complex—bolstered up on many weak supports, and sure to topple down at last—that no man surely can ever be inspired to live it, and “old fogies” ever praise it.  At best, some think it their duty to live it.  

The thinker, he who is serene and self-possessed, is the brave, not the desperate soldier.  He  who  can  deal  with  his  thoughts  as  a material, building them into poems in which future generations will delight,  he  is  the  man  of the  greatest  and  rarest  vigor, not sturdy diggers and lusty polygamists. He is the man of energy, in whom subtle and poetic thoughts are bred. Common men can enjoy partially; they can go a-fishing rainy days; they can read poems perchance, but they have not the vigor to beget poems.  They can enjoy feebly, but they cannot create. Men talk freedom! How many are free to think? Free from fear, from perturbation, from prejudice? Nine hundred and ninety-nine in a thousand are perfect slaves.  How many can exercise the highest human faculties? He is the man truly courageous, wise, ingenious who can use his thoughts and ecstacies as the material of fair and durable creations. One man shall derive from the fisherman's story more than the fisher has got who tells it. The mass of men do not know how to cultivate the fields they traverse. The mass glean only a scanty pittance where the thinker reaps an abundant harvest.  What is all your building, if you do not build with thoughts? No exercise implies more  real  manhood  and vigor than joining thought to thought. How few men can tell what they have thought! I hardly know half a dozen who are not too lazy for this. They cannot get over some difficulty, and therefore they are on the long way round. You conquer fate by thought. If you think the fatal thought of men and institutions, you need never pull the trigger. The consequences of thinking inevitably follow. There is no more Herculean task than to think a thought about this life and then get it expressed.
Journal: 6 May 1858 {Writings XVI. 404-405]

Preaching? Lecturing? Who are ye that ask for these things? What do ye want to hear, ye puling infants? A trumpet-sound that would train you up to mankind, or a nurses lullaby? The preachers and lecturers deal with men of straw, as they are men of straw themselves. Why, a free-spoken man, of sound lungs, cannot draw a long breath without causing your rotten institutions to come toppling down by the vacuum he makes. Your church is a baby-house made of blocks, and so of the state. It would be a relief to breathe ones self occasionally among men. If there were any magnanimity in us, any grandeur of soul, anything but sects and parties undertaking to patronize God and keep the mind within bounds, how often we might encourage and provoke one another by a free expression! I will not consent to walk with my mouth muzzled, not till I am rabid, until there is danger that I shall bite the unoffending and that my bite will produce hydrophobia.  Freedom of speech!  It hath not entered into your hearts to conceive what those words mean. It is not leave given me by your sect to say this or that; it is when leave is given to your sect to withdraw.

The church, the state, the school, the magazine, think they are liberal and free! It is the freedom of a prison-yard. I ask only that one fourth part of my honest thoughts be spoken aloud.
—Thoreau, Journal: 16 November 1858 {Writings XVII .324]

It is no compliment to be invited to lecture before the rich Institutes and Lyceums. . . . There is the Lowell Institute with its restrictions, requiring a certain faith in the lecturers. How can any free-thinking man accept its terms?.. . .  They want all of a man but his truth and independence and manhood.
—Thoreau, Journal: 16 November 1858 {Writings XVII

Look at your editors of popular magazines. I have dealt with two or three the most liberal of them. They are afraid to print a whole sentence, a round sentence, a free-spoken sentence.
—Thoreau, Journal: 16 November 1858

Always you have to contend with the stupidity of men.  It is like a stiff soil, a hard-pan.  If you go deeper than usual, you are sure to meet with a pan made harder even by the superficial cultivation.  The stupid you have always with you.  Men are more obedient at first to words than ideas.  They mind names more than things.  Read to them a lecture on “Education,” naming that subject and they will think that they have heard something important, but call it “Transcendentalism,” and they will think it moonshine.  Or halve your lecture, and put a psalm at the beginning and a prayer at the end of it and read it from a pulpit, and they will pronounce it good without thinking.
—Thoreau, 13 February 1860, Journal

We believe that Carlyle has, after all, more readers, and is better known to-day for this very originality of style, and that posterity will have reason to thank him for emancipating the language, in some measure, from the fetters which a merely conservative, aimless, and pedantic literary class had imposed upon it, and setting an example of greater freedom and naturalness.
—Thomas Carlyle, Writings

The poet will write for his peers alone.  He will remember that he only saw truth and beauty from his position, and expect the time when a vision as broad shall overlook the same field as freely.
—A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers and reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.
—Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

How rarely I meet with a man who can be free, even in thought!  We live according to rule.  Some men are bedridden; all, world-ridden.  I take my neighbor, an intellectual man out into the woods and invite him to take a new and absolute view of things, to empty clean out of his thoughts all institutions of men and start again; but he can’t do it, he sticks to his traditions and his crotchets.  He thinks that governments, colleges, newspapers, etc., are from everlasting to everlasting.   
–Thoreau, Journal 1857

In those days when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me more than it does now, I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the workmen locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get him such a one for a dollar, and having bored a few auger-holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained at night, and shut the lid and hook it, and so have freedom in his mind, and in his soul be free. This did not seem the worst alternative, nor by any means a despicable resource. You could sit up as late as you pleased; and, whenever you got up in the morning, you would not have any creditor dogging you for rent. I should not be in a bad box. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box, who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this. I should not be in so bad a box as many a man is in now.
—Journal: 28 January 1852 {Writings IX.240-241]