Lives of Desparation

The Mass of Men lead lives of Quiet Desparation…What does it mean?

What did this guy really mean?


A long time ago as a child, my mother mentioned to me that all men lead lives of quiet desperation. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant at that time. Maybe she had been inspired by a book, or a movie, or the current sensation of her own life. But it wasn’t until years later that I understood what “Quiet desperation” really means. It’s unmet desires. It’s dreams unfulfilled. It’s waking up one day and realizing that you have lost not only your dreams but your voice. It’s a robotic movement through life as you silently dream of some adventure. It’s your mid and late twenties when you suddenly realize your own mortality and finally start compromising with your own expectations of yourself. This is when the real meaning of quiet desperation rears it’s ugly head.

Sometimes I think of Henry David Thoreau’s quote “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  I wonder what he meant. Was it the modern definition of a dream unfulfilled or the tragic notion that one never really understand themselves until it’s too late. Is it a warning against being directed by fear instead of the heart. Is it a warning against quitting? Is it the lack of hope. Such a profound proclamation of human existence by such a wise man. So tonight I decided to look it up and discovered that 1. It’s a misquote and 2. The meaning is quite debated.

This is an excerpt from his passage. In the spirit of the theme “desire” I’m wondering what other people think this quote means in it’s context. Please Comment your thoughts below.

From “Economy” by Henry Thoreau


“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

20 thoughts on “The Mass of Men lead lives of Quiet Desparation…What does it mean?

  1. I think what he means is that most men never figure out what they really want to do, and so they never do it and are therefore miserable. Hence, wisdom is not to do desperate things: Do things that make you happy instead.

    Just my theory 🙂

  2. I should have read Walden long ago but never did. The closest I came was laying next to a friend on a beach under a too-hot sun while he read it. I was reading 1984.

    I felt compelled search out more context for the quote:

    “When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. ”

    Maybe the “quiet desperation” is the state of living only within the realm of possibilities we’ve been lead to believe in, when the heart yearns to find out for itself what the limits are– and to stretch them.

    • I love your idea. The quote above is another great example. So it’s the idea of the battle between heart and mind and our subsequent unhappiness by not listening to both sides.

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  4. lives of desperation means when all your dreams are taken from you and you are just a shell of a man or woman in this world. And only death can free you from this sadness. The world is no longer beautiful.

    • my previous comment has been sitting in this list for over 6 months, with no reply: if you did read it, what is it you still don’t understand?

    • It’s interesting. Because he also suggests we are living it, making some type of choice, even unconscious. So perhaps the realization of it changes your thoughts but his quote is active

  5. Again it can be the difference between the brain,the mind and the spirit. The bench mark of our lives and very existence starts with the spiritual and then as we grow the mind is set in motion and aging still we enter the brain stage, linear and the part we most talk about. The other persona’s of the human are quickly forgotten until the quest in us asked Why are people particularly in the west so hard on themselves? And the answer to this question as I see it the love of the spirit and empathy of the mind have not engaged nature and companionship so to find a pure balance which puts them in a higher consciousness with there Creator

    • I’m afraid this comment is hard to understand: what is your point?

      And like a couple of other comments here, it’s best to leave out words like creator, spirit and catechism(?!) which are meaningless at best.

      You may understand more, if you know the next line in the book is:
      “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

      The desperation is one of meaning and relevance. Thoreau describes how people can become set into a life created by others and spent working, not as they would wish but only in the service of others. There is then not much, if any, time left for tending to the wishes and desires of themselves, or in trying to find a spark of originality inside their life. Thoreau’s solution was to walk away from this entrapment and try to live as simply as possible: but we are now a lot further away from that solution than ever before.

  6. Oddly, my father, an educator by trade, had a small banner of the misquote “all men lead lives of quiet desperation”, with credit given to Henry David Thoreau stuck between the studs in the far wall of the garage from my childhood through high school years.
    I often wondered what it meant, but never really asked, but those words were clearly burned into the deepest parts of my mind. Here I am now, at nearly 60 years of age, still pondering those words, as I mourn the recent passing of my father.

    • my previous comment has been sitting in this list for over 6 months, with no reply: if you did read it, what is it you still don’t understand?

    • I am sorry for the passing of your father. It would have been interesting to understand why that quote spoke to him. Sometimes I use it as a reminder to live aware, present, and check in with myself. I wonder if your father used it as motivation or perhaps to understand himself and others

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