3,000 words


Thoreau in Walden: Epicurean or Stoic?

Toby Svoboda


ABSTRACT: This paper examines an article by Pierre Hadot that claims Henry David Thoreau was "half Stoic and half Epicurean" because of two Epicurean traits and four Stoic traits that he displayed.  First, I argue that Thoreau is closer to Stoicism than Epicureanism, because the two Epicurean traits Hadot cites are also found in the Stoics.  Second, I argue that Thoreau is nonetheless quite different from the Stoics, because their respective theoretical commitments deviate significantly.  I close by considering the relevance theoretical discourse had for Thoreau's ethical practices, concluding that practice was more important for him than theory.


            In an article entitled "There Are Nowadays Professors of Philosophy, But Not  Philosophers," Pierre Hadot argues that Thoreau's Walden displays some important similarities to both Epicureanism and Stoicism.  Hadot recognizes two Epicurean traits in the life of the book's author: 1) criticism of other people for their ways of life, 2) a simplified mode of living.  He recognizes four Stoic traits in Thoreau: 1) solitude, 2) communion with nature, 3) acceptance of nature, 4) manual labor.  Hadot concludes that Thoreau is "half Stoic and half Epicurean."  In this paper, I show that Thoreau is closer to Stoicism than Epicureanism, but that his distance from Stoicism remains considerable.  I close by considering the importance "philosophical discourse" had for Thoreau vis-à-vis the ethical practices he pursued.

Hadot is not wrong in seeing Thoreau as critical of his contemporaries and dedicated to a simplified life.  He notes that the Epicureans took pleasure in tending to those desires that are natural and necessary (e.g., hunger and thirst) while disregarding those that are unnecessary (e.g., sexual desires) and unnatural (e.g., avaricious desires).  According to Hadot, Thoreau shared their view: "The reason for men's unhappiness, in the eyes of Thoreau, is that they ignore what is necessary and sufficient for life...."[1]  As Thoreau writes, "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. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor."[2]  Further, Thoreau expresses the Epicurean trait of critiquing the common form of life pursued by one's contemporaries.  Modern intellectuals are especially to blame, since they are obsessed with theoretical discourse and neglect the practical problems of life, thereby falling into a sort of degenerate luxury that has little in common with the great sages of eastern and western thought.  This leads Thoreau to the famous announcement, "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers."[3] 

            Hadot also lists four Stoic components of Thoreau's mode of life: 1) solitude, 2) communion with nature, 3) acceptance of nature, and 4) manual labor.  (1) Thoreau's extended sojourn at Walden was a solitary affair, the better part of which he spent living and working alone.  As Hadot points out, for the Epicurean "there is no true pleasure if it is not shared with friends...."[4]  (2) Nor does the Epicurean identify herself with the "cosmic Whole," as Hadot thinks both the Stoics and Thoreau did.  (3) Thoreau also accepted whatever came of nature, even if woodchucks should ravage his beans or heavy rains should destroy his potatoes—the former gives woodchucks nourishment, and rain makes the grass green, both good things.[5]  (4) Finally, Thoreau makes much of manual labor throughout Walden, meticulously chronicling the efforts he exerted in constructing his house, hoeing his bean-field, surveying the frozen pond, etc.  Hadot knows of no mention in Epicureanism of manual labor, but the Stoics strongly recommended it as essential to the philosophical life.  The Stoic Musonius Rufus, as Hadot notes, advocated that the teacher instruct his pupils while working in the field, using the examples of labor to enhance the lessons of philosophy.

            Hadot claims that one should not be surprised to find both Stoic and Epicurean traits in Thoreau.  Goethe spoke of persons whose natures are "half Stoic and half Epicurean," and Goethe himself might be described as such a person.[6]  An interesting question to ask is what Thoreau's attitude was toward his nascent Stoicism and Epicureanism.  He does not speak about it openly in Walden.  Nor are the theoretical underpinnings of those philosophies much in evidence throughout that text.  Broaching the question from the Epicurean side, Hadot writes, "I do not mean... that he was conscious of the fact that this [living at Walden] was precisely a matter involving an Epicurean mode of life, but I do mean that he found, perhaps spontaneously and unintentionally, perhaps under the influence of certain writings of the Ancients or of the Moderns, what Epicurus and his disciples had practiced and taught.”[7]  But is Hadot right to treat Thoreau as half Epicurean and half Stoic?  Although there are some Epicurean strains in Walden, I hope to show that Thoreau tends much more strongly toward Stoicism.

            The second of the two Epicurean characteristics, the penchant to critique one's contemporaries, is the easier to call into question.  Hadot refers to this passage in the Epicurean, Lucretius: "Therefore mankind labours always in vain and to no purpose, consuming its days in empty cares, plainly because it does not know the limits of possession and how far it is ever possible for real pleasure to grow...."[8]  This criticism is rather harsh, and the Stoics do seem a bit more forgiving of their contemporaries.  For example, Marcus Aurelius writes, "Are you angry with the man whose person or whose breath is rank?  What will anger profit you?  He has a foul mouth, he has foul armpits...."  Marcus enjoins the would-be Stoic to not exercise his anger against one who displays unpleasant qualities, and this might be taken as an imperative to refrain from criticism.  But immediately after this, Marcus continues, "...there is a necessary connection between the effluvia and its causes.  'Well, but the creature has reason, and can, if he stops to think, understand why he is offensive.'  ... and so too have you reason; let reasonable disposition move reasonable disposition; point it out, remind him; for if he hearkens, you will cure him and anger will be superfluous."[9]  Far from forbidding criticism of one's fellows, Marcus actually encourages it.  What appears in the first half of the passage as a command to abstain from criticism turns out to be only a recommendation against acting on anger.  In this case at least, Hadot seems wrong in suggesting that the Stoics are not prone to offer social criticism.  Being a good-natured, honest mirror of the other's faults, the good Stoic suggests ways in which the other might improve himself.  This practice, as Marcus suggests, serves the cause of cosmic reason.  The goal is not to berate the other in anger, but rather to recommend a way of life that is for the other's own good.  This being the case, Thoreau's inclination to critique his fellow citizens aligns him with Epicureanism no more than with Stoicism.  The practice is an important element in both philosophies.

             As for the second Epicurean trait, Thoreau certainly did seek to simplify his wants and needs while at Walden, but simplicity of life is a characteristic of both Epicurean and Stoic modes of living.  The crucial issue is the motive behind this simplification—might it be described as either Stoic or Epicurean?  Was Thoreau's life at Walden a matter of duty, natural law, and accordance with universal nature, as it would be for a good Stoic?  Or was it a matter of pleasure, expediency, and pleasure, as it would be for a good Epicurean?  Each of these sets of motives is grounded in a particular theoretical discourse.  In Stoicism, the metaphysical principles of cosmic reason and universal nature provide the foundations for a kind of natural law ethics to which the good Stoic dutifully adheres.  The atomistic physics of Epicureanism, on the other hand, suggests no such principle, and the hedonistic ethics that results is more a matter of dealing with the haphazard world than of obeying metaphysical dictates.

            Thoreau is not often explicit about his metaphysical and ethical commitments, but he does offer some hints in the "Higher Laws" chapter of Walden.  Thoreau writes, "I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another [instinct] toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both."[10]  While the first instinct can be deemed generically Stoic in its reverencing the spiritual life, the second instinct can be deemed generically Epicurean in its reverencing natural human needs and desires.  The problem, of course, is that Thoreau claims to reverence both equally: "I love the wild not less than the good."[11]  This seems to support Hadot's thesis that Thoreau is half Stoic and half Epicurean.  However, the remainder of the chapter belies Thoreau's claim, showing that he actually reverences the good more than the wild.  The Epicurean, though one might say he devotes himself solely to the natural and primitive, recognizes no higher law that governs this endeavor.          In the same chapter, Thoreau declares, "Our whole life is startlingly moral."[12]  This declaration is preceded by a minute discussion of eating and cooking, highly practical affairs.  Thoreau argues for a light, largely vegetarian diet.  Serving as his own "butcher and scullion and cook,"[13] one becomes acquainted with the uncleanness of meat.  Thoreau predicts that humans will eventually stop eating animals for the same reason that "savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized."[14]  This course will result if one "listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true...."  Such suggestions may lead to hardship and inconvenience (i.e., not pleasure), but they also lead to "a life in conformity to higher principles."[15]  By always engaging in practical activity with a regard for these higher principles, one has her reward in a "more elastic, more starry, more immortal" life, and these "gains and values" are actually "the highest reality."[16]  Thoreau advocates a temperate vegetarian diet not for the sake of increased and secure pleasure, but rather because doing so provides a link to a higher and truer reality.  Conforming to this reality is its own reward, whether or not pleasure is attendant.

            Later in the chapter, Thoreau seems to further retreat from his opening claim that he "reverences" the spiritual and primitive instincts equally.  Speaking of the "animal in us," Thoreau writes, "He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established.  Perhaps there is none but has cause for shame on account of the inferior and brutish nature to which he is allied."[17]  Contrary to the chapter's opening declaration, Thoreau here preferences the divine over the animal, the spiritual instinct over the primitive instinct.  As he says, "Nature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome."[18]   To be fair, Thoreau does not advocate a complete rejection or repression of the animal, but he does recommend that it be controlled by one's divine element and its energy be used to fuel one's higher strivings.  Otherwise, "[o]ur very life is our disgrace."[19] 

            These are not the words one would expect from an Epicurean.  Rather than pursuing an intelligent reordering of his needs and desires with the aim of securing pleasure, Thoreau wants to minimize his desires and funnel their energy into the task of conforming to higher laws.  As the "Higher Laws" chapter makes clear, Thoreau's theoretical discourse seems much closer to that of the Stoics.  Thoreau accepts neither the physics nor the ethics of the Epicureans.  His universe is not one of cascading atoms but rather one ruled by spiritual laws.  His ethical goal is not pleasure but communion with a higher principle, his metaphysics recognizing an extra-natural principle, and his ethics being built thereon.  Although Thoreau does not speak explicitly of universal nature or cosmic reason, his ethico-metaphysical framework is at least somewhat similar to that of the Stoics. 

            Hadot is largely correct in detecting at least four Stoic-like traits—solitude, communion with nature, acceptance of nature, and manual labor—in Walden.  The "Solitude" chapter nicely celebrates the first two of these.  "I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself," Thoreau writes.  "Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath."[20]  The "sympathy" with which Thoreau experiences nature is made possible by solitude: "I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself."[21]  Having access to one's own private world encourages a communion with the whole of which one is a part.  Like the Stoic who communes with cosmic reason, Thoreau sought to "sympathize" with nature via solitary means.  One thinks of Marcus Aurelius, whom Hadot references in this regard: "Always remember the following: what the nature of the Whole is... and that no man can hinder your saying and doing at all times what is in accordance with that Nature whereof you are a part."[22]  For  Marcus, communing with nature is a purely individual enterprise.  One must herself "remember" the nature of the whole, and she can remain in accord with it regardless of the actions of others.  Like Marcus, Thoreau advocated a solitary accordance with nature.  This communion is realized and maintained by a private regard for higher laws. 

            The second two traits, acceptance of nature and manual labor, are perhaps best illustrated in the "Bean-Field" chapter.  Thoreau accepted the fact that his beans "grow for woodchucks partly," consoling himself with the thought that the "true husbandman will cease from anxiety."[23]  This strategy of dealing with the caprice of fortune recalls many passages in Stoic literature, but Epictetus' concise comment is perhaps most pertinent: "Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."[24]  One who tries to make nature conform to his desires will be frequently disappointed, whereas one who conforms his desires to nature will have no cause for anxiety.  Thoreau adopts the latter course, relinquishing some of his beans to the woodchucks.  By practicing this "true husbandry," Thoreau closely approximates the advice of Epictetus and hence achieves a degree of serenity.  Finally, there is plenty of emphasis put on manual labor throughout Walden, but it is especially evident in the same chapter.  Thoreau minutely describes hoeing the bean-field, and he compares it to cultivating the link between nature and civilization: "Mine was, as it were, the connecting link between wild and cultivated fields; as some states are civilized, and others half-civilized, and others savage or barbarous, so my field was, though not in a bad sense, a half-cultivated field."[25]  The field has metaphorical consequences for oneself and one's community.  Just as the bean-field may be well or poorly cultivated, so oneself and one's community may be well or poorly tended.  Musonius Rufus recommended that the philosopher use the examples of physical labor to supplement and clarify the lessons of philosophy.  Thoreau has done much the same, treating the bean-field as illustrative of the cultivation needed in human life.

            Granting these similarities, there is still a significant point on which Thoreau and the Stoics diverge.  Simply put, the Stoic appeals to the rational, Thoreau to the spiritual and moral.  The prominence of reason in Stoicism is extreme.  It is treated as the ruling principle of the universe itself, permeating and informing the whole of nature.  For example, Marcus recommends that one "look to nothing else, even for a little while, except to reason."[26]  As the cosmos is obviously perfect, it must itself possess the quality of "divine" reason, since otherwise it would not be perfect.  Thoreau's theoretical commitments seem to clash with these Stoic attitudes.  He says that one who "listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true..." will lead "a life in conformity to higher principles."[27]  Thoreau also claims, "Our whole life is startlingly moral" and that "[n]ature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome."[28]  Stressing individual genius, the radically moral character of life, and the overcoming of nature, Thoreau's position seems decidedly non-Stoic..  First, the Stoic does not suggest personal genius as a means of conforming with "higher principles."  She prefers a more rational approach, claiming that human intelligence can come to see that the ruling principle of the universe is a reason that ought to be conformed to.  Second, the Stoic would not exactly claim that life is startlingly moral, at least not primarily.  She might instead say that life, as part of the cosmos, is startlingly subject to cosmic reason.  A moral life for the Stoic does consist in living according to nature (i.e., rationally), but Thoreau seems to treat the moral element as being more important than the rational element.  For Thoreau, life seems to be permeated with the moral in the same way that nature for the Stoic is permeated with reason.  Third, the Stoic does not claim that "nature must be overcome"—on the contrary, it must be accorded with.  Thoreau's "higher reality" is not nature, because he suggests leaving nature behind with the animal.  Thoreau and the Stoic agree in wanting to be in accord with "higher principles," but the similarity stops there.  Whatever else Thoreau's "higher reality" might be, it is not the cosmic reason of Stoicism.

            I have argued against Hadot that Thoreau does not display Epicurean and Stoic traits in roughly equal proportion.  Of the two schools, he is closer to the latter.  However, the similarities between Thoreau and the Stoic are not deep-reaching.  In terms of ethical practices, Thoreau exhibits many of the qualities found in the Stoic school.  However, the theoretical discourse used to justify those practices is different in each case, except for a generic resemblance in that both Thoreau and the Stoics display a regard for "higher principles."  If one is to say that Thoreau is a Stoic, it is not in a very profound sense.  However, Thoreau does share with both the Stoics and the Epicureans an interest in "spiritual exercises," or philosophy as a way of life.  Hadot stresses that similar "spiritual exercises" can be justified by diverse philosophical discourses,[29] and perhaps this is not problematic for one who is more interested in those exercises than in theoretical justifications thereof.  Thoreau seems to have been such a person, giving little attention to theoretical discourse and instead focusing on living well.  Although Thoreau's school of thought is neither Epicurean nor Stoic, all three agree on the importance of living a good life.


[1] Pierre Hadot, "There Are Nowadays Professors of Philosophy, but not Philosophers," Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19:3 (2005): 229.

[2] Henry David Thoreau, Walden: An Annotated Edition, ed. Walter Harding (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hadot, "Nowadays," 232.

[5] See Thoreau, 128, 162.

[6] Hadot, "Nowadays," 233.

[7] Hadot, "Nowadays," 232.

[8] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, ed. Martin Ferguson Smith (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Loeb Classical  Library, 1982), 489 (5.1430-33).

[9] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. A. S. L. Farquharson (Dutton, New York: Everyman's Library, 1965), 30 (5.28).

[10] Thoreau, 205.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 213.

[13] Ibid., 209.

[14] Ibid., 211.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 214.

[18] Ibid., 215.

[19] Ibid., 214.

[20] Ibid., 126.

[21] Ibid., 127.

[22] Marcus, 7 (2.9).

[23] Thoreau, 162.

[24] Epictetus, Encheiridion, in Epictetus, Volume Two, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Loeb Classical Library, 1967), 491 (8).  Admittedly, this sentiment could be shared by an Epicurean, who might advance it on the basis that modifying one's desires so as to be satisfied with one's lot is likely to increase pleasure and decrease pain.  But coupled with the rest of either Epictetus or Thoreau, the sentiment is seen to be driven by a respect for higher laws or cosmic reason.  This is another example of a single "spiritual exercise" being justifiable by various philosophical stories.

[25]Thoreau, 154.

[26] Marcus, 1 (1.8).

[27] Thoreau, 211.

[28] Ibid., 213, 215.

[29] Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1995), 211.