The Minimalist Who Wrote the Wisest Sentence in History

Are we happier because of all the things we have?

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

On July 4th, 1845, Henry David Thoreau settled in a forest nearby lake Walden, in Concord, Massachusetts, to get away from the world. He built his shelter, gathered his food, and lived in relative solitude for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days.

After his experience, he penned “Walden”, which contains one of the wisest sentences ever written:

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

— Henry David Thoreau

I don’t mean to offend Thoreau by calling him a minimalist. He didn’t live long enough to ever come across the term. Who knows what he would call himself if he had lived a century and a half later?

But his wisdom lives on. And we, as a society, could do a much better use of it.

Do we need all the junk piled up in our houses?

A new phone?

A car?

Fancy clothes?


What for? What purposes are these things serving?

Certainly not their original one. A car takes you from one place to another. That is the only purpose it should serve. Not giving you status. Not inflating your ego. Not helping you seduce girls.

All this is meta. It’s meaning that society created around things that, strictly speaking, don’t have any other meaning than their original one.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

— Henry David Thoreau

Are we happier because of all the things we have? Or are we — as Thoreau puts it — part of this mass of men?


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