Thoreau On Comforts, Luxuries and Tools

We cannot answer the question, ‘How much is enough?’ until we have first answered the question, ‘Enough for what?’ Having exposed that relationship, we are now in a position to consider what attitude Thoreau adopts in relation to material resources beyond the necessaries of life. On this question his alternative economics entails – at times implicitly, at times explicitly – a categorization of material resources into ‘comforts,’ ‘luxuries,’ and ‘tools.’

We all want the material resources needed to pursue our chief purpose in life, whatever that purpose might be. But might there be times when our pursuit of material resources does not support but actually interferes with our chief purpose? Everybody wants enough, but how much is too much? The answer to this question, once again, will be shaped by the answer given to, ‘Enough for what?’ and there is no single right answer to that question. We will see, however, that Thoreau’s alternative economics provides a framework for inquiry that each of us can apply to our own lives, despite the fact that we each have unique life goals. Our answers to the questions posed will probably be different, since our life goals will probably be different, but I contend that alternative economics at least gets us struggling with the right questions, which is no minor accomplishment.

To begin with, consider a scenario in which a person is comfortably able to secure the necessaries of life, but no more. Should this person spend their time despairing at how little they have? Or are the necessaries alone enough to live well and to be free? Although Thoreau does not advocate that we only seek the necessaries and no more – and never is it his intention to glorify true poverty – he does insist (as a self-respecting Stoic) that if it so happens that our fate is to live a life founded upon the necessaries only, this is no cause for despair, necessarily. In such circumstances, he argued, we may be simply ‘confined to the most significant and vital experiences [and] compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar… It is life near the bone where it is sweetest.’[1] His point is that once our basic needs are met, ‘Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul,’[2] which is but an inflection of the old adage that, ‘The best things in life are free.’ With the necessaries of life secured, a strong-minded and cheerful Stoic might still be able to fall in love, experience the joys of conversation and friendship, saunter through Nature and delight in her ‘inexhaustible entertainment,’[3] be part of a community or enjoy solitary contemplation, participate in political life, have aesthetic or spiritual experiences, meditate, sing, laugh, etc. – none of which need to rely on money, or much money. As Thoreau put it, ‘The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.’[4] In this context I cannot resist also quoting John Burroughs: 

 [T]o be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to find a quest of wild berries more satisfying than a gift of tropical fruit; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wild flower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.[5]

As noted, Thoreau had possessions that went beyond the bare necessaries of life, though a materially simple life he certainly lived. We know he built himself a small cabin with but one room, and ate a lot of beans. He tells us that his furniture, part of which he made himself, consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass three inches in diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp.[6] Though he did not wear rags, he happily wore patches on his old clothing, and since he spent so much time outdoors his clothing looked well-worn and weather-beaten. Beyond these things, he stated that a few implements, such as ‘a knife, an axe, a spade, a wheelbarrow, etc., and for the studious, lamplight, stationery, and access to a few books, rank next to necessaries, and can all be obtained at a trifling cost.’[7] According to Thoreau, if our goals are ‘higher’ then we should recognize the limited need for money and possessions in our lives. ‘[M]y greatest skill has been to want but little,’[8] he insisted.

Some material resources are simply indispensable to life – Food, Clothing, Shelter, and Fuel – and Thoreau classified these as ‘necessaries.’ As mentioned above, Thoreau also has three other categories of material resources, namely, ‘comforts,’ which serve to make our lives more pleasurable; ‘luxuries,’ which are superfluous, even harmful; and ‘tools,’ which serve to further our self-development and help us achieve our life goals. A few words will suffice to clarify the place these latter three categories have in Thoreau’s alternative economics.

With respect to ‘comforts,’ let us begin by noting that Thoreau was far from being an ascetic or a puritan. He never denied himself material resources because he sought spiritual nourishment from deprivation. Nor did he disapprove of pleasure. Far from it, pleasure was very important to him. For this reason, he felt that there was a proper place for ‘comforts’ in life, material things that were not necessary to life, but just made life better, happier, more pleasant. Nevertheless, Thoreau felt that we have to be careful. The risk with comforts is that they are addictive. They can easily become the chief focus in our lives, consuming a lot of our time and energy, and Thoreau felt that the purpose in life is not to be comfortable, but to live passionately. Furthermore, sometimes the time and money that we exchange for comforts can simply be a bad trade, in the sense that the comforts ultimately cost more in terms of ‘life’ than they come to. And so it is not that Thoreau is against the warmth of comforts, it is just that he thought we are easily cooked. When answering the question, ‘How much is enough?’, alternative economics requires that we keep these considerations in mind.

If Thoreau was guarded with respect to ‘comforts,’ he was even more so with respect to ‘luxuries.’ Perhaps there are some people, he claimed, who could build more magnificently and live more lavishly than the richest do now, ‘without ever impoverishing themselves,’[9] but he had his doubts about whether any such people exist. Luxuries, he believed, were superfluous to a good life and, indeed, tended to cause more harm than good to those who were unlucky enough to be burdened by them. Referring the superfluities of luxurious furniture and ornaments, he writes: 

At present our houses are cluttered and defiled with it, and a good housewife would sweep out the greater part into the dust hole, and not leave her morning’s work undone. Morning work! By the blushes of Aurora and the music of Memnon, what should be man’s morning work in this world? I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.[10]

Thoreau’s point here, as it has been so often before, is that we must not waste our limited time and attention on things that are irrelevant to our ‘morning work,’ that is, to our ‘proper pursuits.’ For it is not just that luxuries are superfluous to a good life – a criticism which sounds rather benign. More malignantly, they function to distract us from our proper pursuits, essentially wasting our time and thus our lives. In a famous phrase which we have already had occasion to consider, Thoreau claimed, ‘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.’[11] And on this basis – again inverting mainstream economic perspectives – Thoreau provocatively stated: ‘a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.’[12]

This is not the end of it, however. Although Thoreau was critical of having and consuming luxuries, he was also critical of those people – Thoreau would call them ‘fools’ – who feel greatly deprived, despite their comforts, because they are without luxuries: ‘men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries, but for want of luxuries.’[13] This point is important, though it is limited to the middle and upper classes, not the poor. If we read between the lines, Thoreau is suggesting that whatever dissatisfaction people have with their material situations may well be the result of failing to look properly at their lives, rather than the result of any genuine lack. Let us not be like the man who complained of ‘hard times because he could not afford to buy him[self] a crown!’[14] That type of complaint is symptomatic of what some social critics are today calling ‘affluenza,’ understood as a collective psychological disorder that leaves people feeling deprived despite their plenty.[15]

On top of all this, Thoreau was simply unimpressed by and even pitiful of the luxuriously rich, ‘that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.’[16] When the ‘degraded rich’ start living decent lives, Thoreau spat in their direction, ‘then perhaps I may look at your baubles and find them ornamental.’[17]   

And finally, there are ‘tools,’ those things which genuinely serve to further our self-development and help us achieve our life goals. If we look to Thoreau’s own life, in the category of ‘tools’ he would have included books, stationary, a lamp, his flute, hand lenses, wheel-barrow, etc. What we include in this category depends on what our life goals are, but we should always bear in mind that that tools may no longer help us, just as comforts may no longer bring pleasure, when used unwisely or excessively.[18] ‘Men have become the tools of their tools,’ Thoreau asserted.[19] ‘The best works of art are the expression of man’s struggle to free himself from this condition.’[20]

In essence, Thoreau’s views on material resources could be expressed as follows. Throughout much of human history it was a constant struggle to secure the necessaries of life, and in such circumstances Thoreau perceived a certain wisdom and prudence in human decision-making, insofar as the guiding principle was to ‘satisfy the more pressing wants first.’[21] But in affluent societies, where most have more than enough to live well, Thoreau would ask: ‘are the more pressing wants satisfied now?’[22] The suggestion is that, unlike the wise and prudent primitive societies, we are satisfying less pressing wants (for superfluous comforts, luxuries, and tools) and neglecting what are for us more genuinely pressing wants, such as a flourishing inner life. That is only his general hypothesis, however. We must test it ourselves.

[1] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 567.

[2] Ibid 568.

[3] Ibid 409.

[4] Ibid 566-7.

[5] Quoted in Clara Barrus, Our Friend John Burroughs (2008) 133.

[6] Thoreau, above n 1, 319.

[7] Ibid 269.

[8] Ibid 324.

[9] Ibid 271.

[10] Ibid 291.

[11] Ibid 269.

[12] Ibid 335.

[13] Ibid 316.

[14] Ibid 290.

[15] Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005); John De Graaf et al, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2nd ed, 2005); Oliver James, Affluenza : How to be Successful and Stay Sane (2007). 

[16] Thoreau, above n 1, 271.

[17] Ibid 293.

[18] See Philip Cafaro, Thoreau’s Living Ethics : “Walden” and the Pursuit of Virtue (2004) 84.

[19] Thoreau, above n 1, 292.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid 294.

[22] Ibid.