In Walden, Thoreau effectively pointed out luxuries in life that modern people have turned into necessities. His advice was to simplify all aspects of life to forge a better kind of economy. He leveled the needs of humans down to food, shelter, clothing, and fuel (12). The most important necessity of life is food, and he spent time explaining how the other three afford a certain luxury. His purpose for going to live beside Walden Pond was to break life down to its basics and attune himself with truth through philosophy.
He felt that by getting away alone and surviving only on the bare minimum, that he could absorb more of God and nature, and learn more about his own constitution as well. Thoreau said, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor” (85). The stories he relates throughout Walden match the proper definition of economy.
In the Webster’s Dictionary, economy means, “frugal use of money, the regular operations of nature, due order of things, and judicious management.” To people in society during Thoreau’s time and in the twenty-first century, economy means the exchange of money through consumerism. The more possessions a person owns and the more disposable income a person acquires tells of his measure of success in life. People weigh themselves down with too many details and materials in life when the best way to find contentment is to abandon these crutches and live life. Thoreau wanted people to take time to smell the roses if you will allow the cliché.
There are several examples in Walden that illustrate the differences in the approach to economy that Thoreau envisions and the reality of most people’s lives. He wonders why people have so many clothes when you habitually wear the same ones repeatedly and why people eat three meals a day typically when one or even none will suffice (87). He would prefer to travel by foot than by car. Although he reads the newspapers himself occasionally, he is confounded that daily the first words from folks lips are “what’s the news” wondering what everyone else is doing instead of making the most of their own lives and all the treasure to be found nearby through observation.
Having no distractions, he gets profound pleasure out of a mosquito when he relates, “I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn” (84). It is a shame that in most people’s lives, this same mosquito would go unnoticed because of radio, television, children, or other white noises. Most people would rather kill the insect instead of pondering it in any case. Simplify everything and understanding and happiness will surely increase. Thoreau addresses the problem with colleges not preparing youth for real life. He says that instead of watching and studying life, people should be living every minute in real time. Colleges may be good for teaching political economy but fail in promoting practical living (48). He is a philosopher and teaches people to live in reality and to shun pretence.
He enjoys going into the village to observe the townspeople but after pleasantries, excuses himself to solitude instead of feigning interest. He does not see the point in being overtly good or feeling guilty over the poor. He does endorse “necessity of life” living but still feels civilization is desirable even through economy, exemplified in his comment, “None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin” (62). Economy, to Thoreau does not mean seeking poverty but richness through philosophy
The important thing in life is to remove as many distractions (other people, radio) and pollutions (excess, gluttony, pretense) from one’s life in order to reach the truth of life and to really live, so that at the end of one’s life they will not regret not having lived at all. -notes to follow-
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and other writings. Random House: New York, 1992.