On Independence Day, 1845, a few days before his twenty-eighth birthday, Henry Thoreau left his town of Concord and went to live alone in the woods, on the shores of Walden Pond, a mile from any neighbour. He there built himself a modest cabin and for two years and two months earned a simple living by the labor of his own hands. He also wrote, among other things, his autobiographical masterpiece, Walden (subtitled, Life in the Woods), which gives an account of his two year stay. This is, without any doubt, the greatest statement ever made on the living strategy now variously known as ‘voluntary simplicity,’ ‘simple living,’ or ‘downshifting.’

In the second chapter of Walden, entitled ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,’ Thoreau offers us an explanation for his exit from conventional society: ‘I went 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 had not lived.’ He ‘did not wish to live what was not life,’ he tells us, ‘living is so dear;’ nor did he wish to ‘practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.’

‘I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life,… to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness out of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it was sublime, to know it by experience.’

Elsewhere he said that his purpose in going to Walden Pond was to ‘transact some private business with the fewest obstacles.’ 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 ‘private business’ was to solve, or at least better understand, the economic problem of how to live poetically in a world of scarce resources. Perhaps, Thoreau had decided, the best path was to reduce his material wants and live a simple life. He thought that ‘it would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them.’ Simplicity of life was to be his means to the elevation of purpose.

Thoreau had come to suspect that, ‘If your trade is with the Celestial Empire,’ 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,’ was to be his refrain. A modest shelter from the elements should be fixture enough. Old clothes will do, will they not?  ‘Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.’ Most importantly, ‘keep your accounts on your thumbnail.’

This, in essence, was the ‘method’ Thoreau put to the test at Walden Pond, by living simply and rejecting the division of labor. As far as possible he secured his own food, by growing beans, peas, corn, turnips, and potatoes, and occasionally fishing in the pond. He cut down some local trees and built himself a house with but one small room, and made some basic furniture. It was not much, but it was enough. And just enough was plenty. He did not wish to be chained to the economy, so he practiced self-reliance; he did not wish to be slave to artificial material desires, so he practiced self-discipline; and he did not wish to live what was not life, so he practiced self-culture. In short, he practiced what I am calling ‘alternative economics.’

The economic significance of Thoreau’s ‘life in the woods’ can only be understood if we always keep in mind what he was trying to accomplish there. As noted above, Thoreau wanted to be a writer in the Transcendentalist sense, a poet not just of words, but of his life; which is to say, he wanted to infuse his everyday affairs with his highest goals and yield to ‘all the impulses of the soul.’ By 1845, however, it had become clear to this Transcendentalist that his ‘private business’ was not likely to procure him even a moderate allowance in the market. ‘For a long time,’ he notes, ‘I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains.’ Indeed, we have seen that Thoreau, in the eight years between his graduation from Harvard and his excursion to the pond, struggled in vain to find an occupation which would not conflict with the activities that yielded his poems and essays. His options, it seemed, were either to make some compromises and pursue a different vocation – that is, to do something for which there was much more demand in the market – or else somehow find a way to become much less dependent on the market. In the following parable, which I will quote at length due to the centrality of the point it expresses, Thoreau neatly captures the essence both of his economic situation and his response to it:

‘Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off – that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed – he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.’

Before moving on to consider this ‘study’ of Thoreau’s in some detail, the fruits of which are his alternative economics, I wish to take a moment to ensure that Thoreau is not misunderstood on one very important point. Whatever his neighbours may have thought, Thoreau’s venture into the woods was not an attempt to escape reality or to escape what may have been his duties. On the contrary, he knew it to be a journey toward reality and an undertaking to meet his duties; duties to himself, that is, to take himself and his life seriously. ‘As I preferred some things to others,’ he said, ‘and especially valued my freedom, … I did not wish to spend my time in earning rich carpets or other fine furniture, or delicate cookery, or a house in the Grecian or the Gothic style just yet. If there are any to whom it is no interruption [to their ‘proper pursuits’] to acquire these things, and who know how to use them when acquired, I relinquish to them the pursuit.’ Thoreau was clearly terrified of falling into the ruts of ‘tradition and conformity,’ of compromising his dreams and wasting life in the pursuit of trivial luxuries, as he saw so many of his contemporaries doing and which he considered to be ‘not so sad as foolish.’ He knew that he would not be able to pluck life’s ‘finer fruits’ if he devoted too much of his time to the ‘coarse labors of life,’ and so he set about lowering his denominator, reducing his needs. Thoreau’s experiment with simplicity, then, was not a renunciation of life, but an affirmation of it. He found the gift of life to be glorious, and for that reason was ‘anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it to on to [his] stick; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.’ To this passage he adds: ‘You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men’s, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature.’

Thoreau wanted to live without dead time, and he went to Walden Pond to learn how to achieve this; or, at least, to see if it were possible. As a matter of principle, it seemed, he would not accept any division of his day between lower and higher aims, between ordinary and poetic experience. This is what it means to live efficiently, to live economically, in Thoreau’s sense. This is a very different approach, it must be said, to that of mainstream economic thought, which generally assumes that to live efficiently or act economically means ‘maximizing wealth,’ evaluated in terms of dollars. And thus Thoreau’s economics are ‘alternative’ in the sense that economic success is measured not with such yardsticks as productive labour (e.g. Adam Smith) or money (e.g. Richard Posner), but with the yardstick of a life lived well, a life lived deliberately. Admittedly, this may be more difficult to quantify than money or labour, but only with this alternative yardstick in mind can we understand what Thoreau meant when he said, ‘I have always endeavoured to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man,’ and why he thought that ‘Walden Pond would be a good place for business.’ His business was not to make money but to become a ‘Transcendental Capitalist’ who trades with the ‘Celestial Empire.’ The following passage exemplifies Thoreau’s radically unconventional conception of ‘good business:’

‘Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath [in the pond], I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and the hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun’s falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.’

To the people of Concord, ‘this was sheer idleness… no doubt.’ But Thoreau was sure that ‘if the birds and flowers had tried [him] by their standard, [he] should not have been found wanting.’ As he was to write in his journal, ‘If it is not poetic, it is not life but death we get.’