Economy Notes from Walden

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Walden Economy

"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." Economy, pg. 39

The first chapter of Walden is an introduction to Henry David Thoreau's philosophy that led him to live at Walden Pond for two years and two months. It gives the reader a background argument for this drastic step.

Thoreau begins the first chapter by talking about the problem of using "I" in the book, which is not an accepted convention in literature at this time. He decides that he is by necessity limited to his own experience in this book, since it was written chiefly while he lived alone on Walden Pond, and so resolves to use "I". Following this brief introduction, he takes up the issue of inheritances, and how they are more harm than worth. He feels that men work most of their life to get out of debt, and that the possessions (both land and other things) that they want so much actually make their life degrading. Along this line, an inheritance merely adds to a person's burden of stuff, and so makes their lives even more difficult and unpleasant.

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Economy, pg. 43

He talks about change, and the unwillingness of most people to accept the possibility of change in their lives, or to consider taking a risk towards change. This, he feels, is wrong.

The next set of issues Thoreau addresses in this chapter is food, shelter, clothing and fuel; because we have them, we need them, in their current luxurious forms. Thoreau is most critical of fire, and how we are obsessed with it. He introduces his concept of the body's vital heat, which people have replicated with their fires and over-luxurious houses. He talks about all the local businessmen who seek out trade in exotic places just so that in the end, they can have the money to be comfortably warm in New England. In other words, they spend all their lives making enough money so that they can transport the heat back to New England and die in warmth. He says that the luxuriously rich are in fact so warm that they get cooked in their houses. Above all, a poor philosopher's life is best, one that lives as he preaches, which solves the problems of life practically. They are able to learn how to maintain their vital heat in a better way. In this, and many other cases, the wealthy are the poorest because they do not know how they live - how to make their own fires burn, or cook their own food, and so are tied to something they have, but don't know how to use.

Thoreau leaves behind this broad discussion of slavery to one's money to speak about Walden Pond. He describes trying to catch the wind, and be present when the sun rises, because:

"I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand at the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line." Economy, pg. 49

The true purpose of Thoreau's stay in Walden:

"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." Economy, pg. 51

Thoreau then returns to the main subject of this chapter, and tells the story of a local Indian who decided to make baskets as a living. After making a number of them, he went from house to house to sell them, only to realize that he had to create a demand for the baskets before anyone would be willing to buy them. Thoreau decides that, instead of learning how to create a demand, he would like to learn how to avoid selling baskets altogether. He doesn't like the strict business habits of the world, and is more interested in the business of the "celestial empire." In this empire, you can downscale your life, because all you need to keep track of your affairs is a cottage by the water, as opposed to a huge office. And so that is what Walden is for Thoreau.

Next, Thoreau takes up the ridiculousness of clothing, and how we must keep it in good order, even if it is of little import to the character of a person. In contrast to white people's extravagant ways, Indian wigwams are of high quality, comfortable, and very cheap to build and maintain:

"But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven. We have adopted Christianity merely as an improved method of agri-culture. We have built for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb. The best works of art are the expression of man's struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten." Economy, pg. 64

In March of 1845, Thoreau borrows an axe to cut down timber for his house. It is a beautiful spring, thawing out everything people were unhappy about. The woodcutting took him a while, and he didn't think about much while he was doing it, but he enjoyed the process. He became well acquainted with the pine, which he was cutting through all his work. He also bought the boards for his house from a local Irish man, James Collins, who moved out so he could get the money for the boards.

Topic Tracking: My House Outdoors 1

Thoreau then proceeds to give an update on the progress of his house. The cellar is built, but the chimney and caulking will come later when the weather cools in the fall.

He raises the roof of the house with the help of some friends. The construction of his own house launches Thoreau into a commentary on the excesses of architecture, where fancy ornamental designs are useless, and only show off excessive wealth.

Flying in the face of this excess, Thoreau catalogues the expenses and profits of his first year in the woods: his building materials, food, sale of some crops, lime, and so on.

Next, Thoreau takes up a critique of school, especially against the cost of going away to study, and having to pay tuition, while the mere association with other excited scholars (not the classes) is the most valuable part of going to school. But, above all, learning by doing is more valuable than studying. Unfortunately, students at universities don't have any hands-on experiences.

Thoreau takes up a critique of the telegraph and railroad, and talks about how people are in a rush to connect places, but its not clear why, except for the satisfaction gained in saying it has been done. Also, it turns out that it takes as much time to earn the rail passage somewhere as it would just to walk there in the first place.

Thoreau returns to the issue of inheritance and estates. Things never go away, he says, and we only keep them to get rid of them in our estate, instead of cleaning out. We keep stuff only so we can show it off in our estate after we've died.

After this, Thoreau takes up the subject of charity. He doesn't practice it or think it's appropriate. He say it is ridiculous to employ someone out of pity when you could just do it yourself, and be a better person because of it. He insists that we must all become worthy of receiving charity, as opposed to poisoning other people by giving it to them. It's a disease to spread charity, if you are not true to yourself first, and happy with the life you are leading.

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