Henry David Thoreau, born two centuries ago in Massachusetts, rebelled against a treadmill existence of toil and tedium. What can we learn from his ‘experiment’ in simple living?
This year marks the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, best known as the author of Walden, a book that recounts lessons learned from two years of simple living in a cabin the author built on the banks of Walden Pond, not far from his home in Concord Massachusetts.
‘I went to the woods’, Thoreau explains in Walden, ‘because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach’. Convinced that ‘our life is frittered away by detail’, he took as his motto, ‘simplicity, simplicity, simplicity’, seeking to reduce his needs to what he saw as fundamental, and thereby limiting the time spent labouring to meet those needs and expanding his personal freedom. What Thoreau sought was not the ‘freedom to be lazy,’ however, but a way to ‘live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.’
His ideal of ‘Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose’ amidst the ‘chopping sea of civilized life,’ with its ‘incessant influx of novelty,’ seems all the more attractive today when the ‘hurry and waste of life’ that he had railed against has reached a proportion that Thoreau could not have imagined.
Looking back, Thoreau’s age may seem quaint now and to have required hardly any further simplification, but that is really our illusion. The same sort of trivia and tedium that distracts and demoralizes us today was already widespread in mid-19th century America. The mania for news, for instance, afflicted the minds of most Americans, as Thoreau writes:
‘After a night's sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe!—and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself’.
With regards to a proposed trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, Thoreau remarks, ‘We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough’.
These passages, which give a taste of the satirical streak that runs through Walden, bring to mind our own age which groans under the dead weight of celebrity chitchat and trivia. The difference between now and then is just a matter of degree. Tuning out most of the news, which he viewed as mere ‘gossip’, was one way that Thoreau hoped to leave his mind free to pursue worthier matters.
When it came to his reading material, Thoreau guarded the entrance to his mind with an extreme vigilance, only granting entry to the classics, by his own account. But anyone who has entered a zombie state after succumbing to too much click-bait can appreciate the benefits of consuming news in smaller portions.
Working Now, Living Later?
In Walden, Thoreau bemoans how people put off living their lives in favour of ‘earning a living’. He writes: ‘But men labor under a mistake . . . By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool's life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before’. Thoreau derides people who are ‘Spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.’
This tragic waste of time is all the worse, Thoreau argued, because the labour that must be performed to earn that living usually brings little if any personal fulfilment and satisfaction to the labourer, who ‘has no time to be anything but a machine’.
The late 1840s, when Thoreau was living at Walden Pond, was the beginning of industrialization in the northeast of the country. Forests were being rapidly felled, railroad lines built, and factories were popping up all over the place. Thoreauobserves the working conditions of textile factory ‘operatives’ at the time were nearly as bad as those in England, and not surprisingly, since ‘the principle object is . . . unquestionably that corporations may be enriched’.
He was horrified by the tedious, one-dimensionality of work, arising from the increasing division of labour, and wondered: ‘Where is this division of labor to end? And what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself’.
Toward what end?– That is the question Thoreau is always posing. The benefits in increased production from a system that turns the worker into a mere labouring machine seemed very dubious to him.
Meaningful Work, Useless Toil
In focusing his attention on the quality of the work, rather than the quantity of the outcome, Thoreau views are similar in some important respects to those of William Morris expressed in his talk ‘Useful Work Versus Useless Toil’. There Morris writes, ‘To compel a man to do day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning his life into a prison-torment. Nothing but the tyranny of profit-grinding makes this necessary’.
Thoreau would have agreed heartily with that view of Morris, as well as his contention that no work can be meaningful unless the worker has some hope of occasional rest and of pleasure in the work itself, as well as some tangible outcome from the effort made.
Both Morris and Thoreau held the same strong aversion to the separation of physical and mental labour that prevailed in their time as in ours. And the mechanically skilled Thoreau, like the artist Morris, preferred to earn a living through work that engaged his body and his mind, working as a land surveyor or manufacturing pencils for his father’s business, while setting aside his nights to keep the journal that served as the raw material for Walden and other books and essays.
Thoreau thought that engaging in physical labour and outdoor activity had a salutary effect on one’s writing as well. He recommends in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that ‘steady labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is the unquestionably the best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one’s style, both writing and speaking’, adding that, ‘We are often struck by the force and precision of style to which hard-working men, unpractised in writing, easily attain when required to make the effort’.
But of course there is a limit to the benefits of physical labour, and in the case of the exhausted worker, he writes in Walden, ‘Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much” to be able to pluck the “finer fruits” of that labour.
Thoreau sought to steer clear of the extremes of the idle scholar or over-worked labourer, believing that ‘The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly’.
Not Political but Radical
Thoreau was living at a time when, at least in the United States, there was no movement on the horizon that sought to end the alienation of labour and class conflict that prevented both ruler and ruler from easily exercising body and brain; and not surprisingly since capitalism was only beginning to take root in certain parts of the country. Even if there had been such a movement, it seems doubtful that Thoreau would have been among its first converts, since politics was something he largely shunned along with the news.
He did support the abolitionist movement, as many of his friends and family members did, and rose to defend John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry at a moment when that was not an unpopular opinion in the north. But Thoreau was never an activist in the movement.
To his credit, though, Thoreau was not the sort of abolitionist who naively assumed that the body politic would have a clean bill of health once chattel slavery was uprooted. He recognizes in Walden that ‘there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south’ and that perhaps the worst of all forms of slavery is when ‘you are the slave-driver of yourself’.
Thoreau thus points out that chattel slavery is only the most obvious and obnoxious form of enslavement, and that the more subtle forms are in fact the harder to drive out because hidden.
On top of this recognition of the reality of wage slavery and the like, Thoreau also frequently rails against the money economy and the personal dead-end of commerce and trade. In Walden he bluntly writes that, ‘trade curses every thing it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.’ Similarly, in his essay ‘Life without Principle’, he writes that, ‘The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse’.
Toward What End?
His disdain for slavery in all its forms and for the worship of money might seem sufficient grounds to claim Thoreau as a sort of proto-socialist. But I’m not sure if there is much point in drafting him to our cause. And there are many other political tendencies who seem to have him by the beard already. His essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’ alone has been seen as sufficient ground to fashion him the patron saint of non-violent resistance (despite his defence of the über-violent John Brown) or as a sort of anarchist or anarcho-capitalist.
If Thoreau isn’t really a socialist or even a conscious anti-capitalist, what particular value might his works have for workers today? It seems to me that Walden can, first of all, foster and sustain a proud, rebellious spirit. It has an almost immediate spine-stiffening, morale-boosting effect, I find.
And as workers—facing the present age of austerity, precarious employment, and debt—we have almost no choice but to simplify our lives to some extent. We may not want to raise this effort to the level of a movement, since the capitalist class would embrace an ideology that makes a virtue out of the limited possibilities their system offers us. But nonetheless, as individual workers, we face the challenge of figuring out how to limit the amount of time we have to piss away in wage slavery. Thoreau encourages us to think about what is necessary and what is superfluous, freeing us at times from the purchasing mania that advertisers do their best to stimulate.
But the pursuit of a simpler and freer life brings us up against the ridiculous complexity and waste that characterizes capitalism. This system constitutes the very real limitation to our ability to achieve a genuine freedom. Thoreau poses many fruitful questions regarding what constitutes a meaningful life and labour, but the answers cannot be truly found until we have overcome an absurd social system supported by meaningless toil. That does not mean that it is pointless to simplify our life here and now; only that we have to set our sights on a higher goal as well to be truly realistic.
In other words, this bring us back to Thoreau’s fundamental question: Toward what end? And socialists would say clearly in response: Beyond the dead-end of production for profit and toward a new society of meaningful activity to fulfil our human needs.