Study Guide

Walden Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Henry David Thoreau

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

Does simply breathing qualify as living? Or does living require far, far more? In Walden, Thoreau examines his fellow man, and finds him wanting, lacking, unfulfilled: laboring day in and day out, trapped by the desire for wealth and material comforts, unable to distinguish between luxury (like butter and a house with more than one room!) and necessity. Most men, according to Thoreau, are trapped in a kind of living death that suppresses everything that is natural and wonderful about being human. Talk about dark.

But Thoreau is trying to rescue us through Walden. This book is an attempt to break past all our misconceptions about the true meaning of life, and get to some understanding of what real life is. Life isn't just about going through the motions in your daily grind, but enjoying all the faculties for thinking, imagining, and feeling that are unique to each and every one of us.

Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

  1. Take a look at the passages where Thoreau mentions "life." Having scoured through these, what would you say does not count as really living, according to Thoreau? Do most people really live in the fullest sense of the word? What is it about modern life that disgusts Thoreau so much?
  2. Now, let's turn it around. What does count as life for Thoreau? What role does understanding and consciousness play in living a real life?
  3. Do you think Thoreau feels that there is only one way to live? Or is he arguing the opposite – that there are many ways to live? What about a person who makes a lot of money or persecutes other people, but considers this to be his unique principle of life? Is this person truly living? Why or why not?

Chew on This

For Thoreau, life requires a capacity for judgment and understanding that has withered away in modern society. Basically, we're in bad shape.

In Walden, waking up is a metaphor for opening our eyes to the possibilities for the good life all around us.