“Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives,” Thoreau began one of his essays, noting that since time was short he would “leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism,” as was his way. “What is it to be born free and not to live free?” he asked his fellow citizens. “Is it a freedom to be slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast?” America may have been free from political tyrants, but it was painfully clear to Thoreau that it was “still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant.” A tyrant called Mammon.
This world is a place of “incessant business,” he was to lament, and there was “nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.” He also wrote that “It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once,” but there is “nothing but work, work, work.” To be sure, Thoreau was not opposed to labor, industry or enterprise, as such. His concern, rather, was that the ways by which money is acquired “almost without exception lead downward,” almost always involve “lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourself into a nutshell of civility, or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him.” And “those services which the community will most readily pay for, it is most disagreeable to render.” Thus, “It is not enough to [say] that you worked hard to get your gold. So does the Devil work hard.”
For these reasons Thoreau thought that to do anything merely for the sake of acquiring money or material superfluities was to be “truly idle or worse.” The following passage states his position directly:
If I should sell my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth 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 his living.
But Thoreau saw his townsfolk laboring under this very mistake. “It is a fool’s life,” he asserted bluntly, “as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.” He had traveled widely in Concord, and everywhere, in shops, offices and fields, the inhabitants seemed to him to be leading lives of “quiet desperation” and doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. “The 12 labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only 12, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor.” Thoreau likened people’s materialistic cravings to the heads of a hydra, noting that “as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.”
The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “Those who know they have enough are rich.” Thoreau was telling his contemporaries that they had “enough” but that they did not know it, and so were poor. Always wanting more luxuries and comforts and never content with less, he felt that they did not understand the meaning of “economy,” did not understand that the “cost of thing is the amount of … life which is required to be exchanged for it.” “Most men,” he wrote, “even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance or mistake, are so occupied with factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.” By a “seeming fate,” there was “no time to be anything but a machine.”
And for what? People’s lives were being “plowed into the soil for compost” just to obtain “splendid houses” and “finer and more abundant clothing … and the like.” But as Thoreau was to insist: “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.” Indeed he claimed that “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.” More concerned about accumulating nice things or climbing the social ladder than they were about their own destinies, people astounded Thoreau with how “frivolous” they were with respect to their own lives – as if they could “kill time without injuring eternity.”
Thoreau’s life is a reminder that dedicated individuals can establish a simpler, freer way of life for themselves, simply by adopting a new frame of mind and acting on it with creativity and conviction. Doing so may not be easy, of course, since it will involve moving away from where most of humankind is marching. But as Thoreau would say, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Thoreau would also advise us not to wait for our politicians or peers to attain enlightenment before we begin our journey toward simplicity, for it might be a long time before they wake up. Those who have the courage to go forward alone, however, can start today.
Samuel Alexander is the author of Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture. He is the founder of the Life Poets’ Simplicity Collective, a grassroots “network of imaginations” dedicated to advancing the Voluntary Simplicity Movement.