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Important Quotations Explained

Quotes Important Quotations Explained

Quote 3

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.

These words provide the answer to the question posed by the title of Thoreau’s chapter “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” The first part of this title is a practical concern about a place of residence, while the second part is a deeply philosophical concern about the meaning of life. Thoreau combines the practical and the philosophical in his Walden project, and thus the phrase “the essential facts of life” can refer both to material necessities like food and shelter and also to the core of human existence. The double aspect of Walden, its treatment of hard facts as well as philosophical questions, is also evident in his mention of living at the end. Taken factually and literally, it is of course impossible for Thoreau to die understanding that “I had not lived.” But taken philosophically, life means not just biological functioning but also inner fulfillment. The experimentalism of Thoreau’s endeavor is expressed in his frank acknowledgement that he is testing out an idea, rather than proving a foregone conclusion. Finally, the obscure mystical side of Thoreau—which makes him often appear more of a visionary than a philosopher—is evident in his famous phrase “to live deliberately.” On a literal level, he wishes to choose his path of life independently and thoughtfully, subject to his own deliberation and no one else’s. But on a higher level, the phrase is mystical and haunting, since of course nobody ever chooses to live or deliberately seeks to exist. As elsewhere in the work, Thoreau here forces us to contemplate the transcendent meaning of human life even while we think he is simply referring to a cabin in the woods.