Henry David Thoreau
(1817 - 1862) Influential American Philosopher, Author, Poet, and Abolitionist; best known for his book Walden and his essay on Civil Disobedience
- And the cost of a thing, it will be remembered, is the amount of life it requires to be exchanged for it. [Journals, 1845]
- An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day. [Journals, 1840]
- Any fool can make a rule
And any fool will mind it. [Journals, 1860]
- Do not despair of life. Think of the fox, prowling in a winter night to satisfy his hunger. His race survives; I do not believe any of them ever committed suicide.
- Fire is the most tolerable third party. [Journals, 1853]
- Government never furthered any enterprise but the alacrity with which it got out of the way.
- How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live. [Journals, 1851]
- The Indian stands free and unconstrained in Nature, is her inhabitant and not her guest, and wears her easily and gracefully. But the civilized man has the habits of the house. His house is a prison. [Journals, 1841]
- I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
- In wildness is the preservation of the world. [from Walking, 1862]
- It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.
- It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about? [letter to Harrison Blake, 1857]
- The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free. [from Slavery in Massachusetts, 1854]
- The lawyer's truth is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency.
- The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
- Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.
- Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand. [Journals, 1856]
- No definition of poetry is adequate unless it be poetry itself. You might as well think to go in pursuit of the rainbow, and embrace it on the next hill, as to embrace the whole of poetry even in thought. [Journals, 1840]
- No one is so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.
- Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.
- Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.
- That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest. [Journals, 1856]
- To reget deeply is to live afresh.
- The universe seems bankrupt as soon as we begin to discuss the characters of individuals.
- We are as much as we see. Faith is sight and knowledge. The hands only serve the eyes. [Journals, 1841]
- What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.
- What is called genius is the abundance of life and health.
- Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitiches today to save nine tomorrow.
from Civil Disobedience, 1849
- Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one.
- The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.
- It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience.
- Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.
- Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.
- That government is best which governs least.
- Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
- We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.
- A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.
from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849
- Dreams are the touchstones of our characters.
- If you can speak what you will never hear, if you can write what you will never read, you have done rare things.
- It takes two to speak the truth, — one to speak, and another to hear.
- My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.
- Poetry is the mysticism of mankind.
- This world is but canvas to our imaginations.
- To some extent, mythology is only the most ancient history and biography. So far from being false or fabulous in the common sense, it contains only enduring and essential truth, the I and you, the here and there, the now and then, being omitted.
- The unconsciousness of man is the consciousness of God.
- We are sometimes made aware of a kindness long passed, and realize that there have been times when our friends' thoughts of us were of so pure and lofty a character that they passed over us like the winds of heaven unnoticed; when they treated us not as what we were, but as what we aspired to be.
- The wisest man preaches no doctrines; he has no scheme; he sees no rafter, not even a cobweb, against the heavens. It is clear sky.
- You can hardly convince a man of an error in a lifetime, but must content yourself with the reflection that the progress of science is slow. If he is not convinced, his grandchildren may be.
from Walden, 1854
- Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business. Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
- Be sure that you give the poor the aid they most need, though it be your example which leaves them far behind. If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them.
- Be true to your work, your word, and your friend.
- Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
- Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.
- But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.
- Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as be awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction.
- 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. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.
- Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself.
- I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot.
- I have learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
- I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.
- In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.
- In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is. Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.
- It is never too late to give up our prejudices.
- 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.
- It is life near the bone where it is sweetest.
- A living dog is better than a dead lion.
- A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.
- Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.
- The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
- The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.
- Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
- No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well.
- Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.
- Our life is frittered away by detail.
- Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.
- To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.
- There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.
- There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.
- The universe is wider than our views of it
- While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.
from Life Without Principle, 1863
- The community has no bribe that will tempt a wise man. You may raise money enough to tunnel a mountain, but you cannot raise money enough to hire a man who is minding his own business.
- A grain of gold will gild a great surface, but not so much as a grain of wisdom.
- I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which these things would be by me unavoidable.
- Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven.
- There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.
- The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward.
- The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us. Let us spend our lives in conceiving then. The poet or the artist never yet had so fair and noble a design but some of his posterity at least could accomplish it.
- When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is, that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office.
(460 BC - 395 BC) Greek Historian; author of The Peloponnesian War, on the conflicts between ancient Athens and Sparta
- It is from the greatest dangers that the greatest glory is to be won.
- The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it.
- Those who really deserve praise are the people who, while human enough to enjoy power, nevertheless pay more attention to justice than they are compelled to do by their situation.
- Hope leads men to venture, and no one ever yet put himself in peril without the inward conviction that he would succeed in his design.
- Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
- The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.
James Thurber (James Grover Thurber)
(1894 - 1961) American Author, Humorist and cartoonist
- All men kill the thing they hate, too, unless, of course, it kills them first. [from Further Fables for Our Time, 1956]
- All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why. [from Further Fables for Our Time, 1956]
- A pinch of probability is worth a pound of perhaps. [from Such a Phrase as Drifts Through Dreams in Lanterns & Lances, 1961]
- Boys are beyond the range of anybody's sure understanding, at least when they are between the ages of 18 months and 90 years. [from The Darlings at the Top of the Stairs in Lanterns & Lances, 1961]
- Discussion in America means dissent. 
- Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead. [from The Shrike and the Chipmunks, in The New Yorker, 1939]
- The dog has seldom been successful in pulling man up to its level of sagacity, but man has frequently dragged the dog down to his. 
- Don't let that chip on your shoulder be your only reason for walking erect.
- He who hesitates is sometimes saved. [from The Glass in the Field, in The New Yorker, 1939]
- Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.
- Humor is a serious thing. I like to think of it as one of our greatest earliest natural resources, which must be preserved at all cost.
- I always begin at the left with the opening word of the sentence and read toward the right and I recommend this method. [letter to The New Yorker, 1959]
- I do not have a psychiatrist and I do not want one, for the simple reason that if he listened to me long enough, he might become disturbed. [from Credos and Curios, 1962]
- If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.
- I think that maybe if women and children were in charge we would get somewhere.
- It's better to know some of the questions than all of the answers. [from The Scotty Who Knew Too Much, in The New Yorker, 1939]
- Let the meek inherit the earth — they have it coming to them.
- Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness. [forward to Lanterns & Lances, 1961]]
- The most dangerous food is wedding cake.
- Nowadays most men lead lives of noisy desperation. [from Further Fables for Our Time, 1956]
- Now I am not a cat man, but a dog man, and all felines can tell this at a glance — a sharp, vindictive glance. [from Lanterns & Lances, 1961]]
- Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that can happen to a man.
- One martini is all right, two is too many, three is not enough. [from an interview in Time, 1960]
- One has but to observe a community of beavers at work in a stream to understand the loss in his sagacity, balance, cooperation, competence, and purpose which Man has suffered since he rose up on his hind legs.
- The only rules comedy can tolerate are those of taste, and the only limitations those of libel. [from The Duchess and the Bugs in Lanterns & Lances, 1961]
- Ours is a precarious language, as every writer knows, in which the merest shadow line often separates affirmation from negation, sense from nonsense, and one sex from the other.
- The past is an old armchair in the attic, the present an ominous ticking sound, and the future is anybody's guess.
- The sound of a great name dies like an echo; the splendor of fame fades into nothing; but the grace of a fine spirit pervades the places through which it has passed. [in The Columbus Dispatch, 1923]
- There is no exception to the rule that every rule has an exception
- There is no safety in numbers, or in anything else. [from The Fairly Intelligent Fly, in The New Yorker, 1939]
- When all things are equal, translucence in writing is more effective than transparency, just as glow is more revealing than glare. [letter to The New Yorker, 1959]
- With 60 staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and a definite hardening of the paragraphs. [interview in the New York Post, 1955]
- A word to the wise is not sufficient if it doesn't make any sense. [from Further Fables for Our Time, 1956]
- You can fool too many of the people too much of the time. [from The Owl Who Was God, in The New Yorker, 1939]