Here is my chapter on Henry Thoreau from Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future.
Few individuals in history evoke images of ‘the simple life’ more distinctly than the poet-philosopher, Henry David Thoreau. In 1845, when Henry was 27 years old, he left his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and went to live alone in the woods, near Walden Pond, where he built himself a small cabin and for two years earned a simple living mainly from the labour of his own hands. He spent his days growing his own food, writing in his journal, and sauntering through the woods, observing and recording the seemingly infinite wonders of nature in a state of prolonged fascination. It was a period of immense personal growth for Thoreau, during which he struggled productively with the question of how much material wealth – or, rather, how little – a person actually needs to live well and be free.
The main literary product of Thoreau’s time living in the woods was a book called Walden, a dense, unclassifiable text that is part autobiography, part nature writing, and part ‘simple living’ manifesto, but which is now widely regarded as one of the true classics of American literature. Not only that, Walden offers a penetrating critique of materialistic culture, one all the more piercing due to the fact that Thoreau was both a ruthless social critic and a literary genius. It makes for engaging and challenging reading, especially at those times when we see ourselves in the object of Thoreau’s often scathing cultural critique.
In today’s era of overlapping ecological, economic, and cultural crises, Walden is a text that is more relevant than ever before. As well as providing early insight into the destructive and oppressive nature of many processes of industrialisation, it also warns people of the self-imposed slavery that can flow from mindlessly dedicating one’s life to the never-ending pursuit of ‘nice things’. If nothing else, Thoreau’s life and work serve as a fiery, poetic reminder that there are alternative, simpler ways to live – ways which are far freer and indeed more fulfilling than those governed by consumerist values and practices. Thoreau’s message, in short, is that a simple life is a good life, and in our age of ecological overshoot, this is a message deserving of our closest attention.
Thoreau on Materialistic Culture
In order to understand what drove the young Henry Thoreau out of his township and into the woods, it is necessary to acknowledge the context in which he was living. The middle of the nineteenth century was a time when the Industrial Revolution was really taking hold in the United States, but from Thoreau’s perspective, his contemporaries were getting seduced by the extraordinary productive power of industry and machines, without putting their minds to the question of why or to what end they were expending all their efforts and labours – or at what cost. In Thoreau’s eyes, the railroad was the defining emblem of industrialisation, and he often wrote of it metaphorically, as a representation of the emerging economic system that was fast changing the face of the United Sates and indeed the world. ‘We do not ride upon the railroad,’ he asserted, ‘it rides upon us’ (345).
Thoreau had travelled widely in his province, but everywhere, in shops, offices, and fields, the inhabitants seemed to him to be living lives of ‘quiet desperation’ (263), committing themselves to ‘nothing but work, work, work’ (632) in order to pay for their rising material desires. ‘The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor’ (260). Thoreau likened people’s materialistic cravings to the heads of a hydra, noting that ‘as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up’ (260).
The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, once said: ‘He who knows he has enough is rich’ (Vanenbroeck, 1991: 116). Thoreau was telling his contemporaries that they had enough, but that they did not know it, and so were poor. Always wanting more luxuries and comforts, and never content with less, Thoreau felt that people did not understand the meaning of ‘Economy’, did not understand that ‘the cost of a thing is the amount of … life which is required to be exchanged for it’ (286). ‘Most [people],’ he insisted, ‘even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance or mistake, are so occupied with factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them’ (261). By a ‘seeming fate’, there was ‘no time to be anything but a machine’ (261).
And for what? People’s lives were being ‘ploughed into the soil for compost’ (261) just to obtain ‘splendid houses’ and ‘finer and more abundant clothing … and the like’ (270). But as Thoreau would insist: ‘Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only’ (568). Indeed, he claimed that ‘most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind’ (269). More concerned about accumulating nice things or climbing the social ladder than they were about their own destinies, people astounded Thoreau with how ‘frivolous’ (262) they were with respect to their own lives. The following passage states his position directly (636):
If I should sell my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for… I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.
But Thoreau saw his townsfolk labouring under this very mistake. ‘It is a fool’s life,’ he asserted bluntly, ‘as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before’ (261). It was the English poet, William Wordsworth, who penned the lines, ‘Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers’, and one can imagine Thoreau being wholly sympathetic to that critical sentiment.
It appeared to Thoreau as if his fellow citizens were falling into the consumerist mode of living not because they preferred it to any other, but because they honestly thought there was no choice left. ‘So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say’ (266).
Thoreau, however, was not convinced. He was of the view that ‘there are as many ways [to live] as there are radii from one center’ (266), and a consumerist existence was only one of the options available, and by no means the wisest choice. ‘Even the life which [people] praise and regard as successful is but one kind’, and ‘why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?’ (274). Forever the thoughtful non-conformist, Thoreau tended to believe that ‘[w]hat old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can’ (264), and on that basis he boldly proposed that there should be ‘[o]ld deeds for old people, and new deeds for new’ (264). Surely, he thought, there were better ways to live.
It was time for Thoreau to begin his living experiment out in the woods, near the shores of Walden Pond.
The Walden Experiment
In the second chapter of Walden, entitled ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For’, Thoreau offers us a direct explanation for his exit from conventional society. ‘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 they had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived’ (343). Elsewhere he said that his purpose in going to Walden Pond was to ‘transact some private business with the fewest obstacles’ (275). In one sense this ‘private business’ was simply to write in solitude, close to nature, and away from modern distractions. In another sense, though closely related to the first, his motivation was to solve, or at least better understand, the economics of living well. What is the proper relationship one should have with money, possessions, and other forms of material wealth? How much is enough? What is an economy for? How best to earn a living? Perhaps, Thoreau had decided, the best path was to reduce his material needs and desires and to live a simple life. Simplicity of living was to be his means to the elevation of meaning and purpose, his path to genuine freedom.
Thoreau had come to suspect that, ‘If your trade is with the Celestial Empire’ (275) – by which he meant, if your concerns are ‘higher’ than merely getting and spending – then very little is actually needed to live well and to be free, provided life is approached with the right attitude. ‘Simplify, simplify’ (344) was to be his refrain. One should not need an impressive house, fancy clothes, exotic foods, or extravagant possessions to live well. Those things are not the stuff of true satisfaction, but often merely distractions. By minimising our consumption, Thoreau argued, we will find ourselves with more freedom to pluck the finer fruits of life, in ways that are not always obvious.
This, in essence, exemplifies the economics of sufficiency Thoreau put to the test at Walden Pond, by living simply and largely rejecting the division of labour. As far as possible he grew his own food, and mostly drank water from the pond. He cut down some trees and built himself a cabin with but one small room, and made some furniture. It was not much, but it was enough. And just enough was plenty. Thoreau did not wish to be chained to the economy, so he practised self-reliance; he did not wish to be slave to artificial material desires, so he practised self-discipline; and he did not wish to live what was not life, so he avoided wasting his precious time working to acquire more than he needed.
In order to live a full life, Thoreau felt that one must begin by thinking seriously about what really are the necessaries of life, ‘for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and prospect of success’ (267-8). This passage is important because Thoreau is seeking to avoid a misunderstanding that might arise, and sometimes does, from his celebration of material simplicity. Simplicity is not material destitution, he is saying. We all have basic physical needs that have to be met (though they may be fewer than we commonly think). But once those basic needs are met, we are not obligated to dedicate our lives to the pursuit of more. Thoreau proposed that when we have obtained those things necessary to life, ‘there is another alternative than to obtain superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, [our] vacation from humbler toil having commenced’ (270-1).
Thoreau is warning us not to assume that material wealth will always contribute positively to our lives, for often, in insidious ways, it will not. It is not that there is anything inherently evil about money or material things; it is just that each moment we spend pursuing such things beyond what is necessary is a moment we could have spent on some free, non-materialistic good – such as talking with friends, walking through the woods, meeting our civic duties, being creative, or just relaxing. Sometimes trading our time for money and things will be a good trade, no doubt. But sometimes such a trade will ultimately cost more than it is worth, making us not richer but poorer, and thus be a bad trade.
With respect to clothing, Thoreau expresses his simplicity by reflecting on his own modest attire: ‘if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do will they not?’ (278). It is an interesting question to consider, if not in relation to the worship of God, necessarily, then more generally in relation to the living of a passionate life. Old clothes will do, will they not? Thoreau proposed that they will do just fine. His argument is not that one cannot live a happy and meaningful life in fine clothing, so much as fine clothing is not necessary for a happy and meaningful life. If so, he would suggest that we do not waste our freedom labouring to purchase fine clothing. If our goals are ‘higher’ than crude materialism, we should recognise the limited need for money and possessions in our lives. ‘[M]y greatest skill has been to want but little,’ he proclaimed (324).
Thoreau makes essentially the same point with respect to shelter. An average house in his neighbourhood cost about eight hundred dollars (at the time) and Thoreau noted that to lay up this sum would take from ten to fifteen years of the labourer’s life; add the farm and one would have to spend twenty, thirty, or forty years toiling – more than half of one’s life is easily spent. Would the American Indians have been wise to give up their modest but functional tepees on these terms? Thoreau had his doubts, suggesting that ‘when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him’ (288).
Thoreau wanted to show at what sacrifice our more ‘advanced’ dwellings were obtained, and to suggest that, by living more simply, we may secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage. With this in mind, he went to Walden Pond with an axe, cut down some trees, and in about three unrushed months had built himself a modest but sturdy cabin. Again exemplifying his alternative mode of economic analysis, Thoreau declared that, ‘I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on the main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more [in terms of life] than the present one’ (304).
It appears, then, that Thoreau was perfectly content with his shelter, modest though it was. Did this not make him richer than a king who is dissatisfied with his palace? With a little more wit we could all be richer than kings, Thoreau implied; but, unfortunately, ‘Most [people] appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have’ (290).
Despite being a formidable defender of the simple life, Thoreau also saw ‘how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves’ (562); how easily we fall into the ‘deep ruts of tradition and conformity’ (562). This troubled Thoreau, for he thought that if we do not live our lives deliberately – if we only get out of bed because of ‘the mechanical nudgings of some servitor’ (342) – then we are just sleep-walking through life, injuring eternity by killing time, to paraphrase Thoreau (263). ‘Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius’ (342). Thoreau is speaking not so much to geniuses here, as to the genius (or poet) in us all. Take yourself and your life seriously, he is saying. Do not let yourself be swept along. Claim your freedom and exercise your capacity to create your own fate. Compose yourself! WAKE UP!
Thoreau’s essential position is neatly summed up in the following passage: ‘I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely’ (325). This is perhaps the most important lesson that he learned while living in the woods, and it was a lesson that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
We might not have a pond nearby to conduct a living experiment as Thoreau did, and we might not want to live alone in the woods. But Thoreau’s writings nevertheless offer us profound lessons in simplicity that remain applicable to our own contexts, our own lives, if only we dare to think for ourselves. We must each find our ‘own way’ (325), Thoreau properly insisted.
By the time he died in 1862, Thoreau had attained a certain recognised position as a writer, although the amount of money he earned from his writing and lecturing over his entire life was minimal. Nevertheless, the fact that his books, essays, and poems, barely sold was of little consequence. He had woven literary baskets of a delicate texture, and although he had not made it worth anyone’s while to buy them, he felt that it had nonetheless been worth his while to weave them. We should all be grateful that he did.
Thoreau’s life is a reminder that dedicated individuals can establish a simpler, freer, way of life for themselves, simply by adopting a new frame of mind and acting upon it with creativity and conviction. Doing so may not be easy, of course, since it will involve moving in the opposite direction to where most of humankind is marching. But as Thoreau would say, ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away’ (564-5). Thoreau would also advise us not to wait for our politicians or peers to attain enlightenment before we begin our journey toward simplicity, for it might be a long time before they wake up. Those who have the courage to go forward alone, however, can start today.
Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future is available here.
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