An Economy of One’s Own

In the first chapter of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau distills life to economic necessities, rhetorically presenting four, “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” that “few, if any” men or women, further qualified, “in this climate,” for it gets cold in Concord, “ever attempt to do without” (10). Thoreau’s values, quickly made clear and rid of all impurities, are concentrated in two ideas: simplicity and wisdom. The two taken together make for deliberate living, rather than random, fateful, casual acceptance of one’s time, place, situation, predicament. They are necessities, too, because only through simplicity and wisdom will we find we are able to “entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success” (10).

He’s a mile from any neighbor, not including the mostly Irish railroad workers who live in shanties about. He addresses his argument to his “townsmen,” but he’s particularly interested in “poor students,” for whom he has an obvious and heartfelt affinity. His neighbors, though, apparently wonder what he’s up to, and why, and how he’s making do; such is his rhetorical situation, though the contemporary reader may get the feeling, now and then, that if Thoreau were talking today, he might have an obnoxious, self-promoting Facebook page, full of photos of his living alone near the pond, or a blog, perhaps here, at WordPress. We are not so enamored by Thoreau that we wish to nominate him for sainthood, nor would he accept the nomination, anyway, but to at least one thing he appears to be true, and that is to himself, no small achievement, impossible, in fact, Thoreau might argue, if we have gone beyond food to a gluttony of junk yet are still hungry, raised so high our roofbeams we cannot hope to touch our own ceiling, filled our closets with clothes we don’t even remember we own yet proclaim we’ve nothing to wear, and indentured ourselves to our fuel of choice and its profitable engine, the automobile. But while these things are simple tests Thoreau gives us, the critical questions are these: “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” (8).

Why should we read Thoreau today? Consider that his miracle might be found in his book, that we are able to look through his eyes at his world. And, so? Well, what does he see? “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing [sic], it is very likely to be my good behavior.” He is, in a way, like Twain’s Huck, who doesn’t want to go to the good place, for the situation there is problematic for one who doesn’t buy into the values he was born into. Yet Thoreau insists “we may safely trust a good deal more than we do” (9), but first he sententiously strips away the outer bark of our dressed for success self, the source, incidentally, of many of our anxieties: “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do…determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it…denying the possibility of change” (9). Yet we should be cautious of approaching Walden as some sort of self-help book, any kind of New Age panacea, “for the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence” (10). We can’t develop our way out of our existential condition; we may begin by devaluing what has been built up around us a fortress of assumptions. Yet we still might find some ideas in Walden to help “solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically” (13).

But Walden is not for everyone, as Thoreau himself tells us, “but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them” (14). But Thoreau’s argument is not at all limited to the poor: “I have also in mind 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” (14). When Thoreau talks of independence, or of self-dependence, he does not mean becoming financially independent, the term used to describe a modern value unattainable for most and unusable for the 1%, for when Thoreau speaks of independence, he means being independent from the trappings of wealth as well as independent of the notion that to live fully requires a surplus of necessaries. He means finding an economy, a life, of one’s own.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Related: The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in The Land of Plenty

6 thoughts on “An Economy of One’s Own

  1. I would be interested to know just what is meant by the “trappings of wealth”. I would like to believe that people who have wealth use it to make the world a better place. We are rarely shown the good that the 1% have their hand in. We are reminded regularly that they avoid taxes through loopholes or they squander their earnings as a professional sports figure, actor etc. I have no sympathy for reckless wealthy people that find themselves bankrupt. To have it all and throw it away is senseless, but it was theirs to squander. Is it newsworthy – not in my opinion. Would I like to experience the trappings of wealth? Of course I would. I would like the opportunity to make the world a better place. I will have to be content to do my share on a less grand scale and hope that I have made one life better.

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  2. Geannie: “Trappings of wealth” might describe what is ornamental but not necessary. And the ornamental can be like blinders on a horse. And one need not be wealthy before one begins to adorn oneself with such trappings. This is Thoreau’s objection. But he does rant:

    “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor…None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty…When a man is warmed by the several modes which I have described, what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the same kind, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous incessant and hotter fires, and the like.”

    Thoreau spends a lot of time in Walden discussing his audience: “On the one side is the palace, on the other are the almshouse and ‘silent poor.'” He refers to the “degraded poor” as well as to the “degraded rich.” In one sense, he’s simply talking about utility and functionalism. In architecture, this might be forgoing the ornament that has no useful function, a kind of Shaker aesthetic. But he says “men have become the tools of their tools,” and this, as much as anything else, is what is meant by the “trappings of wealth,” not, perhaps, wealth in a monetary sense, but wealth in terms of cost and return. He gives a simple example of two travelers going to the same destination. One takes the usual most convenient and quickest forms of available transportation; the other walks. Thoreau argues that the walker is the wealthier of the two travelers, for the other has worked to pay his fare and seen nothing of the country along the way while the walker is able to head out immediately and enjoy the walk. This is what Thoreau means, again, in one sense, by wealth. The carriage, the train, the bus, the taxi – these would, in the example, be trappings of wealth.

    I have no doubt that you have made the world a better place, or that you have made individual lives better, but your doing so may not have been a consequence of any measure of monetary wealth, unless it was to provide someone with the four necessities, and Thoreau would probably have insisted that wealth is found in simplicity and wisdom, and these are available to most of us, rich or poor, but, as Jesus suggested, maybe a little harder for the rich, who, Thoreau argued, might be tethered to their belongings, but also harder for the very poor, who cannot eat or wear or warm or shelter themselves, physically, with simple wisdom.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and writing. I’ll be reading and posting more on Thoreau. Maybe you’d like to get the book and read along?

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  3. I like the fact that Henry David Thoreau does this experimnet in the mid 1800’s. I’m trying to think of what “trappings of wealth” he gave up for it. Today we would have to give up things like our computers, I-phones, I-pods, etc.., It would also most likely end up on T.V as a reality show with a $100,000 payoff if you can do it. What about the people around the world who do this day in and day out Without realizing that they’re even doing it?

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    • I’m beginning to think I should not have used the term “trappings of wealth,” though it still seems to be a useful summary of much of Thoreau’s “Economy.” But you bring up an interesting point, that we are not in the mid 1800’s, so what now is the value in reading Walden? Trappings of musical wealth: no way I’m giving up the Tele, even though to make it work I also need an amp. No, two amps, one for a large room, one for a smaller room.

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        • Yeah, to get the 40 pound jar of mustard home. I’m still thinking about your previous comment regarding giving up the electronic tools, because I can picture Thoreau sitting happily over his laptop in the local coffee shop hours on end using their WiFi at the cost of a cup of coffee or two.

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