"Why I went to the woods" by Henry David Thoreau comprises the second chapter of his "Walden" titled "Where I Lived, and What I Lived for." He gives the answer to his own question of why he went to the woods in a brief passage that is probably one of the most famous quotes from Thoreau.
"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."
He went to the woods, but he could have lived anywhere. Indeed, he did live in several farms, albeit in his imagination. In his imagination he has bought all the farms he has looked at. "Wherever I sat, there I might live," Thoreau says, for "what is a house...but a seat?"
It was enough for Thoreau that he could enjoy all the things in his imagination without wanting to possess them, "...for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."
Compare this to Diogenes Laertius when he talks about Socrates: "Often when he looked at the multitude of wares exposed for sale, he would say to himself, 'How many things I can do without!' "
Thoreau did eventually settle on a place that was to be his "experiment," the humble cabin next to Walden Pond. Here he spent two years, and from this resulted his "Walden" as well as his "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers."
"I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute."
Almost at the end of the same poem are two lines that Thoreau doesn't quote yet are suggestive of his experiment.
"Even here is a season of rest,
And I to my cabin repair."
Interestingly, there's another lengthy poem by Cowper called "The Task." The spirit of this poem is very similar to that of the "Walden," and in Book Three there is a short passage that expresses sentiments that bring to mind Thoreau's "Why I went to the woods."
"I was a stricken deer that left the herd
.... in remote
And silent woods I wander, far from those
My former partners of the peopled scene,
With few associates, and not wishing more.
Here much I ruminate, as much I may,
With other views of men and manners now
Than once, ....
I see that all are wand'rers, gone astray
Each in his own delusions; they are lost
In chase of fancied happiness, still wooed
And never won. Dream after dream ensues,
And still they dream that they shall still succeed,
And still are disappointed; rings the world
With the vain stir. I sum up half mankind,
And add two-thirds of the remainder half,
And find the total of their hopes and fears
Dreams, empty dreams...."
And Thoreau says: "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."
Thoreau speaks of living close to nature, and away from technology and the pressing concerns of daily life. But it should be noted that he only stayed at Walden Pond for two years, and did eventually return to living a normal life.
If, as Thoreau says, he went to the woods to live deliberately, he must have already had the thoughts that he put down in writing while at Walden and after his return. No doubt much of the writing talks about the things he did and saw and thought while at Walden. But the philosophy must have already been there, at least in embryonic form.
One can speculate that Thoreau had formed this idea of living a life of "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" from his reading and his own thoughts prior to his stay at Walden, and then decided to conduct his experiment. "...To drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms."
The fact that he returned after two years and did not again attempt to return to nature suggests that he realised it wasn't necessary to live this way permanently. What he probably realised, and meant to show through his writing, is that it's important to take a mental step back from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
"I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.... To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour."
What Thoreau did with his two-year experiment can be done mentally by those who cannot, or do not wish to, physically take a hiatus from normal existence. People everywhere may be forced by circumstances to lives dictated by drudgery. But they can make a difference by opening their minds to higher thoughts. Waking up, as Thoreau says, to the world and wakening that part of us that otherwise remains dormant.
"Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music..."