Walden or, Life in the Woods: Inspirational Excerpts


A very special book that really inspired Tim Ferriss, which I have read, as it was one of the books recommended at the end of “The 4-Hour Week“, is “Walden or Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau is a fairly remarkable character, very unusual. He was an American philosopher from the 19th century. Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 and died in 1862.

Henry David Thoreau was one of the most ardent abolitionists of the 19th century. He detested black slavery and was very influential in their emancipation in the 19th century in the United States.

Notably, he wrote a book on civil disobedience, based on the principle that sometimes when laws are completely unjust, you have to know how to stand up to them. Just because a law is voted in, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to accept it.

Over and above that, Henry David Thoreau had a very pragmatic and insightful philosophy of life that can be summed up as the art of voluntary simplicity or happy sobriety, which is very similar to that of the Stoics or even the Zen Buddhists.

He had very pragmatic views on this.

How would you sum up voluntary simplicity?

Well, these two words sum up the concept. It’s about the ability to simplify your life and to think about and question certain basic things that you take for granted. This means that you choose things that are more straightforward in order to be able to enjoy life more.

This is already fairly similar to the philosophy of “The 4-Hour Week”.

Here are some passages that will make you understand how relevant it is today.

The edition I have is a French translation from the early 20th century. The language is a little heavy by our standards. So have adapted it so that it’s a little more up to date.

He talks about types of dwellings in different types of civilizations. Specifically, he mainly compares them with the culture of Native American Indians. He wrote about this in the 1840s-1850s and there are still quite a few Native Americans who live in a very different style from other people in the U.S.A.

At the time, he compares their ways of life and specifically their dwellings.

Henry David Thoreau

“Walden” is the true story of Henry David Thoreau who decided to go and live in the forest for two years to put this voluntary simplicity into practice.

The story of Walden takes place over one year, but, in fact, his two years are condensed into one year.

“In the wild, every family has a dwelling that is as good as any and adequate for all basic and simple needs. But I do not think I exaggerate when I say that while birds have their nests; foxes their dens, and Native Americans their tents; in modern civilized society no more than half of all families possess a dwelling.

In the big cities in which civilization reigns, the number of those who own a dwelling is only a tiny minority. The rest pay for this most excessive of all possessions, which has become indispensable in summer and winter, an annual expense which would be enough to buy an entire village of Native American tents, but which still contributes to their level of poverty, which will remain with them for life.

While, with this statement, I do not wish to point out the disadvantages of rental property when compared to ownership, it is clear that if the Native American owns his own place of shelter, it is because of how little it cost. Whereas if someone from a more civilized background rents theirs, it is because they cannot afford to own it. And they just about have enough money to rent it.

But let us answer that, it is enough for a poor civilized person to pay this price to have a dwelling, which is a palace compared to that of a Native American. An annual rent allows them the privileges of the progress made over the centuries: a spacious apartment, painted walls and wallpaper, heating, a boiler, a secure lock, a cellar, etc.

But why is it that the person who has access to all this is often a less well-off person from a 1st world country, while the person who does not have it is as rich as Native American?

If it is said that civilization represents genuine progress in the status of man, and I believe that it does, but that only the wise take advantage, it’s necessary to demonstrate that it has created much better dwellings without the increased costs. Yet the cost of a thing is the value of what I would call “the life demanded in exchange.”

Yes, Henry David Thoreau is right.

The cost of a thing, of course, you can pay for it with money. But that money, you have to spend your time to earn it.

So you can exchange the money you owe to buy something; even your house, or your rent, for your whole life. By the way, that’s why we often equate taxes in terms of a lifetime.

If you pay tax at a rate of 50%, it means that you work for the government from January to the end of June.

Thoreau goes on to say, ” In order to buy a house, you will have to save money for 10 to 15 years of yours life…” That was back then. Now it’s more like 15-20 years, or longer.

” … even if he doesn’t have a family, so generally he will have had to spend more than half his life before he has saved enough for his tent. Let’s say he pays rent instead. This is just the more questionable choice between the two options.”

And Thoreau asks this absolutely wonderful question, he says; “Would the Native American have been wise to exchange his tent for a palace for half his life?”

Is it wise for Native American to trade his tent for a modern house – and even then, it was a 19th century house – in return for half his life to pay for it?

Now, even if you pay for your house for 20 years, it’s more like 1/3 of your life than half. But still, everyone thinks: well, I have to rent a house anyway, I have to buy a house, etc. And, therefore, I have to work.

Is this actually useful? Is it even necessary? Isn’t there an easier way to do this and enjoy life in other ways?

Then, he puts this thought into reality and builds himself a cabin in the woods in Walden. He tells you how much it costs to build the place, and he leaves you with a wonderful thought.

Henry David Thoreau says: “I have ascertained that a man who wants a dwelling to shelter in can acquire one for a lifetime at no more cost than the annual rent they currently pay”.

He says that if you do a few small things, do things for yourself and keep it simple, it doesn’t cost much.

“If I sound like I’m bragging, I apologize by telling you that I’m bragging for humanity rather than for myself. And that neither my weaknesses nor my inconsistencies affect the veracity of my statements.”

In fact, the cost to build his cabin was $28.12. That was in dollars back then, of course. These days, it would cost a lot more.

He says, “At Cambridge College, the basic rent for a dorm room, only slightly larger than mine, is $30 a year.”

His point is that it cost more per year to live there than the cost of the cabin that he built, which he could live in forever.

“I can’t help but think that if we showed a little more genuine wisdom, not only would less education be necessary, but the cost of education would largely disappear.

The facilities expected by students at Cambridge, or elsewhere, will cost them, or someone else, a lifetime sacrifice ten times larger than they would have to make with any other institution.”

He says that just the debt the student builds up as a result of their education goes a long way towards the need for them to earn a higher salary.

And here we have a very relevant and valuable thought, that I have also included in my book “Not everyone was lucky enough to miss out on college” which is that there’s something that people rarely talk about, which is the lost opportunity cost if you go on to higher education.

Let’s say you decide to do a Bac+5 instead of a Bac+2. So, you partake in 3 more years of education. What they don’t tell you, or don’t clearly explain to you, is that you will probably earn more money, though this is not guaranteed.

I also list all the numbers at the start of “Not everyone was lucky enough to miss out on school”. But for 3 years, you will earn nothing, whereas if you quit education after a Bac+2 and found a job, you could earn a salary.

And so, that’s 3 years wasted, not to mention 3 years where you earn nothing, 3 years where you pay for more studies, 3 years in which you could have invested your money, 3 years where you could have learned new skills.

That’s really 3 years of lost opportunities that will create an opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost:

It is the cost you have in relation to another option that you could have chosen; which would have allowed you to make money.

For example, if you had a choice between A and B, you choose choice A; which allows you to earn 8,000 euros, or if you had chosen choice B; which would have brought you 10,000 euros, the opportunity cost of choice A is 2,000 euros.

In addition to that, there is also another element that Thoreau talks about because it is the difference between Native American and a civilized man, as he says. It comes from the same source.

It is that the more high powered your job, and often it is linked to a top class degree; the more you will be tempted, or even feel obligated; to spend money on things that go with that status.

When you are a doctor, even if you don’t really care if you drive around in a 2CV or some other inexpensive car; as a doctor, for you to be seen in a cheap car just doesn’t seem right.

You will feel much more compelled than a nurse to buy a slightly more luxurious car because it’s part of your status; it’s what people expect and they will think it’s weird if you drive around in a cheap car.

Whereas a nurse, who won’t have had such a high level of education; who starts to earn money much earlier, but still earns much less than you; they don’t need to spend as much money.

That’s not to say that I think that it’s necessarily a bad thing to live in greater comfort; my point is that it’s also an opportunity cost that you don’t appreciate when you get a high level degree.

Then he says: “If I look at my neighbors, the farmers in my town; I see that for the most part they have struggled for 20, 30 or 40 years; to become the actual owners of their own farms; which, in general, they inherited with debts or bought with money borrowed at a high interest rate.

One third of this work can be considered as the cost of their houses. But; as a general rule, they still have not been able to pay for their farms.

And sometimes the farm’s costs are higher than the value of the farm itself; to the point that the farm becomes a significant financial burden; and there is no need to find someone to inherit it; since he knows it inside out and it won’t be a problem.

When I spoke to the tax inspectors; I was surprised to learn that they couldn’t name 12 people in the city who owned farms without debts.

In fact, a person who has actually paid for his farm with his own hard work is a rare occurrence; I wonder if there are even three in my town.”

In this passage, and throughout the first part of Walden, or, Life in the Woods; Thoreau makes an extremely poignant observation because he says that the problem with farmers is that; they spend 20, 30 to 40 years of their lives to work; in order to pay for their farms.

It really comes full circle. It’s like when he says that students have to graduate with a high-class degree, so that they can pay for their education.

His intention is to highlight the meaninglessness of all this and that people lock themselves into repetitive patterns that they allow to continue without any real thought. People become slaves to their own needs, when they could just as easily learn to have more straightforward needs and; consequently, have more time to enjoy life.

And, finally, he said:

Where is the logic in that farmer has to spend most of his life to work to pay for his farm, while I can build a place which costs less than a student’s annual rent for the room they need whilst they study?

So, this is a relevant thought. It is something that is still valid and relevant today.

For those who have read the first part of “Not everyone was lucky enough to miss their studies”, it links to this thought on the opportunity cost of studies, and, ultimately, a thought that is never talked about and yet is valuable, because with this thought, you can still decide to do the same as before, but at least you do so from a more enlightened perspective.

From a personal point of view, after I had read Walden, it really struck a chord with me. It really inspired me, though that doesn’t mean that; I would agree to go to live in a cabin in the woods.

By contrast, it inspires me to keep things simple, to try to understand; to identify when I put myself in situations that continue to go round in circles; when I decide to work more to pay for things that ultimately cause me to work longer hours or that are of little importance; that are simply things that I do out of habit.

It was Walden, among other books, that inspired me to get rid of 95% of my possessions; because I realized that the majority of the things I had bought and accumulated just gathered dust in the cupboards and were never used. I had earned money to buy things that were unnecessary.

And it ties in with a quote in my book from Nigel Marsh, who talks about the rat race. He says, “There are thousands and thousands of people who work long, hard hours; at jobs they hate, to make money to buy things they don’t need; to impress people they don’t like.

So, it’s a cycle that starts off with no thought. In the end, you find that you surround yourself with nothing more than yourself, and that doesn’t create more happiness.

The book “Walden, or, Life in the Woods” is very philosophical.

I highly recommend that you to read it. Buy a modern edition with a more up-to-date translation, it will be more enjoyable.

The goal is not to follow Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy that far, to say that I’m off to build a cabin in the woods and I’ll be happy, but to use it as inspiration to try to simplify life, to recognize when you are in a negative cycle of life and to ask yourself this question: how can I simplify things and what can I do away with today, so that I have to work less and enjoy life more, so that I don’t pursue more things that I don’t need and rather focus on the important issues.

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  • The book “Walden or, Life in the Woods” on Amazon
  • The book “The 4-hour week” on Amazon
  • Video: A common mistake that beginners make: do you make it?

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