Thoreau on Materialistic Culture

‘Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives,’ Henry Thoreau began one of his most provocative essays, noting that since time was short he would ‘leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism,’[1] as was his way. ‘What is it to be born free and not to live free?’ he asked his fellow citizens. ‘Is it a freedom to be slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast?’ America may have been free from political tyrants, but it was painfully clear to Thoreau that it was ‘still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant.’[2] A tyrant called Mammon.

This world is a place of ‘incessant business,’ he lamented, and there was ‘nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.’[3] He felt that ‘It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once,’ but there is ‘nothing but work, work, work.’[4] To be sure, Thoreau was not opposed to labor, industry, or enterprise, as such. His concern, rather, was that the ways by which money is acquired ‘almost without exception lead downward,’[5] almost always involve ‘lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourself into a nutshell of civility, or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbour to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him.’[6] And ‘those services which the community will most readily pay for, it is most disagreeable to render.’[7] Thus, ‘It is not enough to [say] that you worked hard to get your gold. So does the Devil work hard.’[8]

For these reasons Thoreau thought that to do anything merely for the sake of acquiring money or material superfluities was to be ‘truly idle or worse.’[9] The following passage states his position directly:

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.[10]

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.’[11] He had travelled widely in Concord, and everywhere, in shops, offices, and fields, the inhabitants seemed to him to be leading lives of ‘quiet desperation’ and doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. ‘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.’[12] Thoreau likened people’s materialistic cravings to the heads of a hydra, noting that ‘as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.’[13]

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, ‘Those who know they have enough are rich.’[14] 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, he felt that they 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.’[15] ‘Most men,’ he wrote, ‘even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance or mistake, are so occupied with factitious cares and superfluously course labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.’[16] By a ‘seeming fate,’ there was ‘no time to be anything but a machine.’[17]

And for what? People’s lives were being ‘ploughed into the soil for compost’[18] just to obtain ‘splendid houses’ and ‘finer and more abundant clothing… and the like.’ But as Thoreau insisted, ‘Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.’[19] 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.’[20] More concerned about accumulating nice things or climbing the social ladder than they were about their own destinies, Thoreau was astounded by how ‘frivolous’ people were with respect to their own lives – as if they could ‘kill time without injuring eternity.’[21]

‘Who made them serfs of the soil?’ he asked, again implying that his contemporaries were slaves to their uncontained material desires and yet oblivious to this self-imposed servitude. ‘It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.’ At the height of his indignation Thoreau even turned on the abolitionists, and told them: ‘Ye are all slaves.’[22] This was no mere rhetorical gesture. One of his poems even mocks the abolitionists’ vehemence:

Make haste & set the captive free! –

Are ye so free that cry?

The lowest depths of slavery

Leave freedom for a sigh.[23]

It was the English poet William Wordsworth who penned the lines, ‘Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,’[24] and we can imagine Thoreau being wholly sympathetic to this critical sentiment. And yet, such uncompromising condemnation of profit-seeking and acquisitiveness, of what Thoreau called ‘the commercial spirit,’ may give rise to the objection that Thoreau (and Wordsworth) were just disaffected romantics who failed to appreciate what were arguably the many beneficial aspects of industrial capitalism. Thoreau, however, had anticipated this retort: ‘”What!” exclaim a million Irishman starting up from all the shanties in the land, “is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?” Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.’[25] ‘As for the Pyramids,’ Thoreau remarked, inviting us to reconsider the nature of human industry, ‘there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs. I might possibly invent some excuse for them and him, but I have not time for it.’[26] It is much the same for the United States Bank, Thoreau concluded. ‘It costs more than it comes to,’[27] in terms of life, a calculus to which we will return.

Thoreau was living in a time of great economic transformation and for him the railroad was the emblem of industrialization. He often spoke of the railroad metaphorically, as a representation of the emerging economic system that was fast changing the face of America and indeed the world. ‘We do not ride upon the railroad,’ he asserted, ‘it rides upon us.’[28] He developed this image in the following memorable passage:

Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding upon a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep… and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.[29]

Thoreau indeed hoped that those ‘sleepers’ who were being ‘ridden upon’ by industrialization would ‘sometime get up again,’ and he did what he could to ‘wake [his] neighbors up.’[30] But it appeared to Thoreau as if his sleeping neighbours had fallen into the common 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.’[31]

But Thoreau was not convinced. He was of the view that ‘there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one center.’[32] ‘Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it… [M]an’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.’[33] Even ‘the life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind,’ and ‘why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?’[34] Forever the thoughtful non-conformist, Thoreau tended to believe that, ‘What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can,’ and on that basis he boldly proposed that there should be, ‘Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new.’[35]

It was time for Thoreau to begin his living experiment at Walden Pond.

[1] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Life without Principle’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 632.

[2] Ibid 650.

[3] Ibid 632.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid 634

[6] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 262.

[7] Thoreau, above n 1, 634.

[8] Ibid 640.

[9] Ibid 634.

[10] Ibid 636.

[11] Thoreau, above n 6,  261.

[12] Ibid 260.

[13] Ibid.

[14] See Goldian Vanenbroeck (ed), Less is More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty (1991) 116.

[15] Thoreau, above n 6, 286.

[16] Ibid 261.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid 568.

[20] Ibid 269.

[21] Ibid 263.

[22] I am indebted to Carl Bode for this reference. See Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 25.

[23] Ibid.

[24] William Wordsworth, ‘The World is Too Much With Us; Late and Soon’ in John Hayden (ed), William Wordsworth: Selected Poems (1994) 166.

[25] Thoreau, above n 6, 308.

[26] Ibid 312.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid 345.

[29] Ibid 345-6.

[30] Ibid 337.

[31] Ibid 266.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid 264-5.

[34] Ibid 274.

[35] Ibid 264.

2 Responses to “Thoreau on Materialistic Culture”

  1. […] (For the background to this post, click here.) […]

  2. Candice says:

    I stumbled upon this post when I googled “Thoreau quotes materialism.” Its a pleasure to know that there’s someone out there that took his time to write such a piece, only to inspire others. I guess what else would be the point of writing. And, hence, this comment to you. Great job. I thank you.

  3. TG says:

    Thank you for your brilliant Wisdom piece, I believe Henry David Thoreau was a peaceful sage; “Most only begin to live when they are getting ready to die” Seneca

    “It is the simple things in life, that are the most extra-ordinary” The Alchemist

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