Thoreau On Working Hours

Let us now reflect on Thoreau’s attitude to working hours. His basic insight here, which is central to his alternative economics, can be expressed quite briefly, since it has been implicit throughout much of what has already been discussed and now just needs bringing to the surface.

We only have a limited amount of time on earth with which to live our lives, and out of self-respect we should not waste that time. Indeed, Thoreau suggested that we should be as covetous of our time as most people are of their money. On this subject he spoke not to those who are ‘well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not.’[1] Rather, he directed his attention mainly to ‘the mass of men who are discontented,’[2] those people who are not passionate about their working lives and who seek more time to do other, more inspiring, things. Thoreau suggested that in affluent societies more time is probably available, if only one’s material wants are reduced and controlled. Conversely, he warned that if one’s material wants are allowed to creep up indefinitely, then one’s working week will never decline and may even increase, despite considerable increases in wealth and advances in technology. This self-imposed labor of Sisyphus is one to which so many seem to have been condemned, but fortunately there is an alternative path to follow, a simpler way. Why not minimize and then stabilize one’s material wants, and work less? In the same vein, instead of converting increases in income and productivity into more comforts and luxuries merely, as most do, why not convert those increases into more free time instead? It is well worth considering. Nevertheless, those who would not know what to do with more leisure if they were given it are bluntly advised by Thoreau ‘to work twice as hard as they do now.’[3]

During his experiment, Thoreau discovered – and let this give us a moment’s pause – that in living a life of voluntary simplicity he could meet all the expenses of living ‘by working about six weeks in a year.’[4] This left him with the whole of his winters, as well as most of his summers, ‘free and clear for study.’[5] Having thus secured his freedom, which is what he sought, he had no reason to envy (and indeed had reason to pity) the ‘successful’ capitalists, merchants, shopkeepers, mechanics, farmers, lawyers, doctors, etc. who were money rich but time poor. In one of his more acidic moments Thoreau even commented that those who spent their time earning superfluous money ‘deserve[d] some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.’[6] Their highest duty in life to accumulate colored paper! Does any divinity stir within them?, Thoreau wondered. What are their destinies worth to them compared with coloured paper?[7]

Thoreau’s central insight on the subject of working hours is powerfully captured in the following passage:

 Those slight labours which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing worth left 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 a living.[8]

 Thoreau saw his neighbors spending the best part of their lives accumulating dross in order to enjoy a questionable liberty in their final years. This reminded Thoreau of ‘the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.’[9] Thoreau again returns to the metaphor of ‘sleeping away life’ to hammer home his point:

 I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together. I know not what manner of stuff they are of, sitting there now at three o’clock in the afternoon, as if it were three o’clock in the morning.[10]

 The fact that Thoreau was able to provide for his basic needs by working only six weeks per year, or thereabouts, should provoke those of us who work approximately 48 or 50 weeks a year, in jobs we do not always like, to at least reassess what exactly we are getting back for the time we are giving up. Even if we suppose that Thoreau’s working hours were to some degree distorted for one reason or another, his arguments still deserve reflection. From the perspective of alternative economics, are we doing ‘good business’ by always trading our time for a higher material standard of living? Are we forced by the ’curse of labor’ to work so much? Or are we freer than we think we are?

Thoreau’s view on the matter is perfectly clear: ‘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.’[11] 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.

[1] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 271.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid 324.

[4] Ibid 323.

[5] Ibid 323.

[6] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walking’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 592, 595.

[7] Thoreau, above n 1, 263.

[8] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Life without Principle’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 636.

[9] Thoreau, above n 1, 308.

[10] Thoreau, above n 6, 595.

[11] Thoreau, above n 1, 325.