A blupete Essay

Economy (Ch.1), Part 1 to blupete's Essay
"Thoughts On Thoreau And Walden"

Thoreau broke his Walden down into 18 chapters, which, on average, run 20 pages each. His first chapter he entitled "Economy."

Within a few pages of his first chapter we see Thoreau referring to the mass of persons to be, figuratively speaking, "serfs of the soil," most having been born with "inherited encumbrances." Then he breaks into his first quotable paragraphs:

"But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. 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. ... Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them."
How do you spend your life? Are you "... always on the limits, trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt, ... always promising to pay, ... seeking to curry favor, to get custom, ... flattering, voting, [so 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; making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day ..." If so, then "you are the slave-driver of yourself." No one is driving you to lead the life you lead. People do not care what you are up to; they are too concerned about the conduct of their own particular lives. Don't worry about what others think! Take your own counsel. "Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion."

Then comes Thoreau's most famous line:

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
If a person feels he is bound up in chains, then he is bound up in chains! Whether these chains are real, -- or imagined. What a person must realize is that we are, for the most part, free to choose. Once a person comes to the realization that his chains are of his own mental making then he can immediately burst them; a person need only but choose. What has he got to lose!

"The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under the several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel ..." We are fortunate to be living in such a place as Canada as we need not spend all our time getting the necessaries of life together, though in places which experience winters, one might assume more time need be spent than those places that do not. So, Thoreau resolved:

"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; ... I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves."
Next Thoreau refers to the great lesson which we are to learn, whether by route or by understanding. He refers to a basket maker thinking all that was necessary was to make baskets and when made he would have done his part, it would be up to another to buy them and would be frustrated and upset if no one did.

"He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture [Thoreau's writing], but I had not made it worth any one's while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my baskets [his books], I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?"
Referring back to his early topic, clothing, one of the necessaries of life, Thoreau makes his point that not much in the way of clothing is needed; indeed, one wonders if Thoreau had gone to a tropical isle, such as Robert Louis Stevenson did in 1888, whether he would have worn any at all, as a nudist, declared or not. But, while the wearing of clothing in Massachusetts for most of the year is a necessity, it was not the wearing of essential clothing that bothered Thoreau (assuming he was bothered about anything). Clothes are worn usually as a symbol, as a badge which we show off to our fellow man.

"It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes. ... Beside, clothes introduced sewing, a kind of work which you may call endless; a woman's dress, at least, is never done. ... I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes."
As for shelter: Well the wigwam of the Indian was "but the symbol of a day's march ..."

Thoreau, in the midst of his discussion of shelter drops in, as he is wont to do, a gem, this time on bankruptcy:

"Bankruptcy and repudiation are the springboards from which much of our civilization vaults and turns its somersets, but the savage stands on the unelastic plank of famine."
A house (and Thoreau would have said an automobile if he were writing these days) is something that will simply tie a person down; one can become a slave to it. "... Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them ... 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." As for furniture: "Why should not our furniture be as simple as the Arab's or the Indian's?"2 More generally what is the use of your things, or your stuff, if you leave off from improving your mind. "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."

Thoreau, after having set his theme firmly forth, began to spread the facts of his experience at Walden Pond.

"Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. ... The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it. It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up. The ice in the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces ... There were some slight flurries of snow during the days that I worked there; but for the most part ... They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself."
Thoreau took great pride in the building of his humble abode that measured "ten-by-fifteen."

"There is some of the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes. 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."
Thoreau keep accounts, as undoubtedly a school teacher was obliged to do in those days. He spent, in total, 28 dollars and 12½ cents on the building of his new home, his highest expenditure ($8.03½) on boards, "mostly shanty boards"; he spent $4 for shingles for the roof and side; $4 on brick; and 14¢ on "Hinges and screws"; and 10¢ for a latch. He installed "Two second-hand windows with glass" which cost him $2.43.

When he was finished Thoreau built a "small woodshed" with the materials he had left over. Having started at the end of March, Thoreau took up residence in his hand built home on July 4th; he built it in 14 weeks or so. Now he made time to experience nature to its fullest. During the two years Thoreau spent at Walden Pond, Thoreau found that he could meet all the expenses of living by working but six weeks in a year; and this, mainly because he was able to develop his greatest skill, "to want but little."

In his discussion on the money needed to build his home Thoreau passes to us a comment on education.

"Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants. Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made."
Thoreau observed that what is invariably missing in a person's formal education (and I should note that Thoreau graduated from Harvard), is that few of us, as students or otherwise, ever carry out a study on "the art of life." He notes, that it be a pity that a student is not obliged to "survey the world through a telescope or a microscope" (doing so with a "natural eye"), a pity that he should be obliged to study chemistry, if at the same time he cannot be shown and "learn how his bread is made." So many of the courses (and, -- it follows -- many of the university professors) are useless consumers of a student's precious time, time that might be well spent on the study of life. Thoreau gives a for instance: " ... To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation! -- why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it." Especially, I might add, if Thoreau had cruised awhile with "an old salt" on board, as may yet be found in many of our picturesque harbours up here in Nova Scotia.

As for saving: Thoreau questions the sense of it, even if you are worried about your old age:

"This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it ..."
As for the "do-gooders" of the world:

"As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. Moreover, I have tried it fairly, and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution. Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good which society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation; and I believe that a like but infinitely greater steadfastness elsewhere is all that now preserves it. But I would not stand between any man and his genius; and to him who does this work, which I decline, with his whole heart and soul and life, I would say, Persevere, even if the world call it doing evil, as it is most likely they will."
Thoreau distinguished between a person who went about doing good as opposed to a person who went about being good. "If I were to preach at all in this strain, I should say rather, Set about being good." Thoreau preferred to avoid the do-gooders of the world: "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life ..."

"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 strives in vain to relieve. ... Do not ... be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world."
We now come to the end of Thoreau's first chapter, which might be summed up in his words:

"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."

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[Essays, First Series]
[Essays, Second Series]
[Essays, Third Series]
[Essays, Fourth Series]
[Subject Index]
Peter Landry

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