The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
I really liked this quote that was found in this chapter of our reading. I understood it to mean that people who live in society blindly live unfulfilling lives. I completely agree with this quote. Which was a first for me since I really despise Thoreau and everything that he writes. If everyone followed what society told them what was right or what was acceptable, nothing would change. There would be no revolutions of any kind, no need for justice and injustice. Things would just be bland and uneventful. Thoreau probably wouldn’t even be a writer that would be read in countless classrooms. Although this seems pretty favorable, under all his pompous words and views, there are some important messages that can be learned. I find this quote to be very moving, inspiring, and interesting to ponder.
Thoreau evokes Shakespeare to make a claim on what in human life he views to be “evil”. Reflecting on “the auction of a deacon’s effects” (155), Thoreau borrows from The Tragedy of Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them. ” He elaborates that the evil, for his purposes, are those effects that are left behind, and those items are auctioned off in such a way that increases their value in a manner that seems to exploit the death of a man. Thoreau illustrates, “The neighbors eagerly collected to view them, bought them all, and carefully transported them to their garrets and dust holes” (155). Thoreau seems to find despicable the tendency of fellow man to value objects over living beings, and he highlights this perversity by providing his readers with the image of people eagerly going after the objects Thoreau claims to be the “evil” of man. In such an illustration, Thoreau also succeeds in categorizing the majority of humankind as “evil” for their enthusiastic pursuit of such “evil” material.
Further, the second clause of the Shakespearean quote which Thoreau omits concludes, “The good is oft interred with their bones”. Consideration of this quotation augments the categorization of things as bad and people, their being and essence, as good–emphasizing Thoreau’s value of the individual over the value of the materials we possess.
Thoreau talks a lot about the “necessaries” of life in this chapter and how they intertwine with the economy. He focuses a couple pages worth on what people wear and how wasteful the more wealthy are. His comments about one being truly comfortable in their own clothing, comes from the multiple wears, something that the wealthy do not experience. This makes me think that Throeau has a conflicting opinion on the difference between the wealthy and the poorer.
In economy, Thoreau writes about the enlightenment he achieved by letting go of the luxuries of overabundance. He states that having the bare minimum is enough for a person to survive and even flourish as he/she would be freed from the imaginary pressure imposed by society and oneself. “By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.” This paragraph starts with a description of the bare minimum according to Thoreau. The passage in general is Thoreau explaining what he thinks is the only requirement for a person to live to the fullest. Cloth, food and shelter in this case.
One passage from this chapter that I found interesting was near the beginning when he talks about how hard people work, and how they basically are working their life away. I think that he is implying that he believes that you do not really need to work to obtain the life that you want and that just because you have money does not mean you have happiness or the life that you may want. On page 109 Thoreau says “It is a fool’s life…”, which to me follows along with his ideas that are seen throughout the entire book. I also think this strengthens the argument that Thoreau see society as odd sometimes for doing things such as working your life away when you could be doing better things with your life.
“By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been form the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savages, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.”(Thoreau, pg.120)
In this section, Thoreau lays out the necessities of man: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. He seems to view these things as things that make humans weak, especially those who are civilized. He compares the savages’ hardiness to the cold weather to the civilized man’s inability to be warm enough even with clothes. He also mentions the selfishness of humans who do anything to obtain their necessities of life, as he states, “with our beds,…robbing the nests and breasts of birds to prepare this shelter…”(Thoreau, pg.121). We are able to see Thoreau’s attitude toward materialistic items and simple life, in his response to comforts/luxuries. As he talks about society’s need of excess material, he puts himself apart from them, bringing up that as a philosopher one should live a life of simplicity (as he does).
In Economy, Thoreau explores the relationship between luxury through nature. I think it is fascinating that Thoreau considers the luxury of nature as an accidental discovery made by humans because often humans yearn for and seek to possess some form of luxury. It seems as though nature unknowingly provided humans a luxurious resource but to acquire it humans had to work for it. I believe luxury can only be attained by a limited number of individuals. However, Thoreau argues exclusivity of luxury can become inclusive. He illustrates this juxtaposition by focusing on one of earth’s most powerful elements, fire. Thoreau saw fire as a luxury because it was an unfamiliar and beneficial resource (Thoreau 114). But, he argues fire lost its status of luxury when it became a “present necessity to sit by it” (Thoreau 114). Thoreau alludes to this idea that luxury cannot be a necessity or enjoyed by humans. I find Thoreau’s definition of luxury contradictory to the Merriam Webster’s definition of luxury, which defines it as “something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary” and “an indulgence in something that provides pleasure, satisfaction, or ease” (Merriam Webster). It makes me wonder, can luxury be enjoyed by many or does it have to be accessible to some people and treated as a rarity?
“So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.” -page 113
The discussion of change has been a prominent one throughout our time reading both Thoreau and McKibben. Here, Thoreau establishes change as a “miracle.” I want to focus on change in the context of nature. He was living in a time before climate change was radically affecting nature and its processes; however, his discussions of our discomfort towards accepting change are pertinent in today’s political and social climate. McKibben speaks of how quickly change can take place, and how, in terms of climate change, these changes are often completely overlooked in favor of greed and comfort. In this case, the changes that we are witnessing are not “miracles,” but I do think that it is poignant that Thoreau speaks of the refusal to accept change when that is, in fact, one of the largest problems surrounding the climate crisis today, and one of the largest threats to the nature that he reveres so highly.
One interesting passage that Thoreau discusses in “Economy” is the topic of fashion. He condemns the speed at which people in his society buy, wear, and discard new clothing, saying that they “don garment after garment, as if we grew like exogenous plants by addition without” (23). I found it interesting that he expresses his disapproval of fast fashion by writing about it in terms of nature, indicating that he sees society through a natural lens and constantly compares them. He gripes about the difficulty of finding clothes that he likes to wear, stating the disbelief and judgement in the tailor’s response when he asks for a piece of clothing that is out of fashion. He claims that society worships “Fashion” instead of gods, and that this decision is “childish and savage”. I feel like he goes on a rant here for a few pages, letting his frustration about society’s fashion choices flow. I wonder if this is his only mode of relief, pouring his arguments into a book that “listens” instead of people in a society who disagree with him. I wonder if writing Walden, especially this chapter, is cathartic for Thoreau.
“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 fireplace opposite. The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work, all of which was done by myself, was as follows; and I give the details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them:”
Throughout Thoreau’s book he incorporates bookkeeping tables that represents the expenses that he pays while in the woods, but also the profit he gets from doing various tasks (ex. working on the bean fields). One particular passage and bookkeeping table that stood out to me was in the chapter called “Economy” where Thoreau outlines his expenses for the cabin he builds himself. I think Thoreau’s use of the table highlights not only does he want to live a lifestyle where he does not incur a lot of debt, but also, the fact that he does not need to buy new material to feel content with his house. In general, Thoreau’s inclusion of tables throughout the book sheds light on his desire to avoid and essentially restrain himself from giving into the consumer society that his fellow peers and community members are so actively engaged in.