Lives of Quiet, and Not So Quiet, Desperation

Thoreau explores both the American economy and the idea of economizing. In doing so, he seems to be asking if we can have possessions without them possessing us. You can’t read the chapter on “Economy” without recognizing that the problems facing people in the 1850’s have not gone away, but have, instead, multiplied.

If Thoreau sees the Americans of his time as obsessed with things, it’s difficult to imagine how he would view people today. Even those, perhaps particularly those, who have inherited wealth get little benefit from it:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.

It’s not just getting things that obsesses us; their mere possession consumes our lives:

How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot.

Too often we think how nice it would be to have something without considering the effects that possession would have on us.

We want to think that the misery in our life is caused by others, but Thoreau argues that the worse misery is caused by the self:

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.

And the fact is that most people who pursue wealth are their own slave-driver. As a result of our desires, nay of our greed:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation .

And worst of all, most of us don’t even know that it is ourselves that are driving us crazy:

Confucius said, "To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge."

Until we realize that it is ourselves and our incessant desire for things that drives us, there is little hope that we can attain the happiness that we think is assured by the things we are desperately pursuing:

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

If it were really true that “things” can make us happy wouldn’t the rich be happiest of all, whereas a considerable number of rich people seem anything but happy:

I also have in my 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.

It is precisely to escape these luxuries that possess people that Thoreau retired to Walden Pond:

My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as foolish.

Thoreau wanted to be a philosopher, a philosopher that applied his philosophy to his life:

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

The three areas that must be addressed in order to fulfill his ideas of living simply are dress, shelter, and work itself.

If Thoreau was concerned about the importance of dress in 1850, can you imagine how he would feel about the craze for Nike tennis shoes, sports gear, or Nordstrom fashions? He comes from far simpler times when mothers or wives actually patched clothing to make it wear loner. It takes me back to my childhood when they actually put big patches over the knees of Levis so that you could wear them to you outgrew them:

No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.

And who would consider starting a new job without new suits, much less go to an interview with an old, outdated one:

A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in; for him the old will do, that has lain dusty in the garret for an indeterminate period.

Apparently it’s gone out of style to only replace clothes when they’re worn out. What would happen to the thriving Goodwill business if people actually decided to buy clothes sensibly?

If people overindulge in clothing, then it’s hard to come up with the correct word for what has happened in the housing market. First, let us consider Thoreau’s advice:

However, if one designs to construct a dwelling-house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clue, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead. Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary.


If families really are getting smaller, with less than two children per family, then why are so many houses getting larger, considerably larger? Even if one can afford such a house, who has the desire, or time, to clean it?

Not only has the size become ridiculous, the price of housing has become a major concern in certain areas. A home that would cost $200,000 or less in Vancouver Washington would easily run a half-million or more in Santa Rosa. Who knows what it would cost in Silicon Valley?

If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man -- and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages -- it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

It’s hard to imagine how much of one’s life has been mortgaged for a house costing half a million dollars or more.

Some of the cost is necessary, of course, but much of the price is simply due to trying to “keep up with the Joneses:”

Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.

I’ve got nothing against keeping up with the neighbors, in fact, I’m an awfully competitive guy, but I try to beat my neighbors by being happier than they are, not by owning more than they do:

Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?


Now that I have a wife it’s not as important as it used to be, but I used to feel much the way Thoreau did about having things:

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. How, then, could I have a furnished house?

Of course, if I had my way, half the stuff in the house would be gone for I hate dusting almost more than I hate dust. But we don’t always get our way, particularly when it comes to houses and wives, and mothers, and daughters.

But “Economy” is about more than just being possessed by your possessions. It’s also about the value of “work” or “labor:”


The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful. "But," says one, "you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?" I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.

Just as Emerson In “An American Scholar” argued that man must occasionally go back to being the “complete” man, so Thoreau argues for the worth of labor.

Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? What does architecture amount to in the experience of the mass of men? I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house. We belong to the community. It is not the tailor alone who is the ninth part of a man; it is as much the preacher, and the merchant, and the farmer.

and

The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful.

Although Thoreau advocates the simple life, he does not advocate “shiftlessness:”

None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That is shiftlessness. There is a plenty of such chairs as I like best in the village garrets to be had for taking them away.

It is not labor that Thoreau questions, instead it is the balancing of labor with the important things in life.

Possessions, particularly excessive possessions, are a “trap” that keeps man from living his life well:

If I have got to drag my trap, I will take care that it be a light one and do not nip me in a vital part.

The fact is, though, that most people do not have to work excessively in order to live “well:”

In short, 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; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

One wonders why in a society where machines enable us to make more things more efficiently that the average American is working longer hours than his parents did. Shouldn’t the true goal of industrialization be to make it possible for people to work less hours and to have more time for themselves? Instead, people seem to be working longer hours in order to buy more things that they have less time to use.

If colleges educated the whole person, would college graduates be less willing to put in long hours working at jobs? Would they have goals that went beyond owning the fastest car and the biggest house? Would they truly become philosophers in the best sense of the word?

Thoreau Moves to Walden

Harvard educated Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) offered this by way of introduction to Walden, one of two of his books published in his lifetime:

I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.

Walden could serve as a wake up call for us all.

Thoreau considered himself a writer early, living with Ralph Waldo Emerson for a time and writing, earning his keep as a laborer. He was a surveyor and interest holder in the family pencil business which produced the first pencils in America that equaled the German Faber. He was also a lecturer and most of his writings began as lectures which were then edited for print.

At age 28 Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, began building his cabin in March 1845 and moved in July 4.

He began his journals on the shore of Walden Pond located on land owned by his friend Emerson outside Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau had purchased an old cabin which he dismantled, moved, refurbished, and lived in for two years, two months and two days.

Walden is somewhat circular in its organization, spiraling through very practical accounts of the author’s provisions for survival and his philosophy of life. The book reads like a journal, the entries varied in order from the discussion of “necesssaries,” advice, achievement, education, travel, expenses, and charity.

In the first chapter of Walden entitled “Economy” Thoreau challenged his readers to consider living more simply and thus more happily, refusing to gather more than he needed for survival. The items Thoreau thought extraneous caused grief and should be avoided. Merely taking care of all the accumulated goods was too great a burden.

He has no time to be anything but a machine.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

It is never too late to give up our prejudices.

Early in the chapter Thoreau’s insistence on the individual thinking for himself and following his own path is apparent. He saw no benefit in listening to the advice of others, particularly one’s elders.


Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures.


Those of us who fall into the category of elders may find that we only live to serve as warnings to others. Each individual should set his own course to discover a life without limitation.

But man’s capacities have never been measured.

In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.

Following the dictates of society may produce a cooperative citizen; however the citizen’s potential may not be realized because of his obedience.

What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?

Following his own advice, Thoreau removed himself from his neighbors to see just what might be necessary for survival and what could be left behind.

It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life...

The “necessaries” proved to be “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.”

No doubt the cold Massachusetts winter prompted him to consider warmth a “grand necessity.”

The grand necessity, then for our bodies is to keep warm, to keep the vital heat in us.

Some tools were considered necessary:

At the present day, and in this country, as I find by my own experience, a few implements, a knife, an ax, a spade, a wheelbarrow, etc., and for the studious, lamplight, stationery, and access to a few books, rank next to necessaries.

Consider for a moment what Thoreau did not have to consider omitting from his existence: scotch tape, airplanes, photography, The NBA, cell phones, Levi’s, Coke, cotton candy, dishwashers, electric lights, fountain pens, electric irons, zippers, paper clips, potato chips, radios, toilet paper, typewriters, vacuum cleaners, traffic signals, and Band Aids. I’m guessing more items would have been on his necessaries list if they had existed in 1845.

Still, Thoreau warned against luxuries and comforts.

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.

Woven into his recounting of his preparation to live at Walden Pond is Thoreau’s intent to emphasize the individual.

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.

What is to be man’s work after his needs are met? Certainly not the accumulation of more goods.

When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.

I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but now not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.

One of my favorite lines appears in the following quotation, encouraging man to live in the present, that nick of time, notched on a stick:

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment;

There is a hint at another reason Thoreau walked away from his village to live alone. Perhaps from these words he has earned his reputation for being cranky and uncooperative. Does he sound a little petulant and pouty that the town fathers did not employ him?

In short, I went on thus for a long time, I may say it without boasting, faithfully minding my business, till it became more and more evident that my townsmen would not after all admit me into the list of town officers, nor make my place a sinecure with a moderate allowance.

But he recovers and identifies his purpose for the move. His “private business” was originally to write a book in memory of his older brother John who had died of lockjaw.

My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles.

Several paragraphs are dedicated to exactly how many clothes one needs.

As for Clothing, to come at once to the practical part of the question, perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility.

I must admit old clothes do feel the best, “receiving the impress of the wearer’s character.” Most of us would have to agree that we use clothing for many more issues than warmth.

Our occupations often send us to Nordstroms, another problem in our choice of clothing.

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.

The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.

Limiting the clothes in the closet to those necessary for warmth is joined by an admonition to restrict the size of one’s farm and house.

When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, who are at least as well off as the other classes, I find that for the most part they have been toiling twenty, thirty, or forty years, that they may become the real owners of their farms, which commonly they have inherited with encumbrances, or else bought with hired money,--and we may regard one third of that toil as the cost of their houses,--but commonly they have not paid for them yet.

And if the civilized man’s pursuits are no worthier than the savage’s, if he is employed the greater part of his life in obtaining gross necessaries and comforts merely, why should we have abetter dwelling than the former?

Inside, our houses unnecessary items require too much maintenance, keeping us at a task that is unworthy when we should be taking care of our minds.

...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...

The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature.

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.

...a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.


The cabin then that Thoreau built is comfortable and necessary for shelter, but contained no luxuries.

I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fire-place opposite.

The cost of his house? $28.12 1/2 cents.

From explaining his housing, Thoreau moves to the individual once more, this time admonishing kids in school to live and not just read about others’ lives.

I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.

Following is one of the more interesting passages in Chapter one, Thoreau’s discussion with a friend concerning the best way to travel.

One says to me, ‘I wonder that you do not lay up money, you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg to-day and see the country.’ but I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages...Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night;... You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there sometime tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day.

This anecdote has inspired a wonderful children’s book illustrated by D.B. Johnson entitled “Henry Hikes to Fitchburg.” Thoreau and his buddy appear as bears who take up the challenge to work for a ticket or walk to Fitchburg. I had to explain the moral to my grandchildren, but it was worth it.

Returning to the necessaries, Thoreau carefully explains his food supply.

I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips.

...if one would live simply and eat only the crop which he raised, and raise no more than he ate, and not exchange it for an insufficient quantity of more luxurious and expensive things, he would needcultivate only a few rods of ground, and that it would be cheaper to spade up that than to use oxen to plough it, and to select a fresh spot from time to time than to manure the old, and he could do all his necessary farm work as it were with his left hand at odd hours in the summer; and thus he would not be tied to an ox, or horse, or cow, or pig, as at present.

A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince.

Yes, I did eat $8.74 all told; but I should not thus unblushingly publish my guilt, if I did not know that most of my readers were equally guilty with myself, and that their deeds would look no better in print.

Thoreau could not raise all of his food and mentioned that he did purchase rice and baked unleavened bread from different kinds of purchased grains. He also purchased molasses, sugar, lard.


Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances.

Thus I could avoid all trade and barter, so far as my food was concerned, and having a shelter already, it would only remain to get clothing and fuel.

There follows an account of his living expenses for one year. Thoreau spent $36.78 more than he had earned that year, living at Walden Pond. As near as I can figure from one historical statistic I found on the Web, this would be equivalent to about $2300 today. This would seem to me to be a debt which could have been paid by his labor.

For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living.

I have thoroughly tried school-keeping, and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain.

I have tried trade...picking huckleberries

I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles.

The laborer’s day ends with the going down of the sun, and he is then free to devote himself to his chosen pursuit, independent of his labor; but his employer, who speculates from month to month, has no respite from one end of the year to the other.

In short, 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...


...but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way ...preserve the true course.

Apparently Thoreau did not need to purchase any furniture for his cabin. Some of the furniture he made; the rest was scrounged out of others’ attics. He stuck, of course, to the barest necessities.

I think that the man is at a dead set who has got through a knot hole or gateway where his sledge load of furniture cannot follow him.

Because Thoreau kept himself unencumbered by household items, he was free to spend his time walking, studying, and writing. He had the same feeling about traveling unencumbered by a companion. Anyone who has tried to organize a travel group would agree with him as he wrote about traveling with others.

the man who goes alone can start to-day...

Chapter one ends with a warning concerning the worthiness of charitable organizations. Thoreau’s views on philanthropy were very similar to Emerson’s. Neither man found the contributions as beneficial to society as the philanthropists thought they did.

You must have a genius for charity as well as for anything else. As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full.

Begin where you are and such as you are, without aiming mainly to become of more worth, and with kindness aforethought go about doing good. If I were to preach at all in this strain, I should say rather, Set about being good.

If I knew for a certainly that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.

I never heard of a philanthropic meeting in which it was sincerely proposed to do any good to me, or the like of me.

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strive in vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sundays’ liberty for the rest.

I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind.

I want the flower and fruit of a man.

...let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our own brows, and take up a little life into our pores.

So ends the chapter on economy. Thoreau has answered why he moved to Walden Pond and how he would live there for two plus years. “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” is the title of Chapter two.

What do you think?