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Chapter one of Thoreau’s Walden is titled “Economy.” This title might lead readers to believe that Thoreau considers systems of wealth / poverty in the chapter. However, Thoreau does not begin with a discussion of economy. Instead, he foregrounds the chapter with a reflection on the condition and nature of humankind. In fact, it is not until one-third of the way through the first chapter that Thoreau even uses the word “economy.” Here, Thoreau suggests that “Economy is a subject which admits being treated with levity, but cannot so be disposed of.” He later posits that “Even the poor student studies and is taught only political economy, while that economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy is not even sincerely professed in our colleges.” Thus, Thoreau critiques the traditional view of economy as a capitalist system; he broadens a traditional definition of economy to include the interconnectedness of all living systems. More specifically, Thoreau concludes that an “economy of living” is one which accounts, not for money and wealth, but for the philosophy of being. In doing this, Thoreau, challenges traditional, conferred authority.
Nineteenth-century Western thought strictly defines economy in monetary terms; to be considered wealthy was to own property. Thoreau, however, outlines a contrasting perspective, which is first articulated in his discussion of the nature of human dwellings. In this section, Thoreau contrasts the state of civilized man with that of the savage. While few civilized men can afford to own their own dwellings, nearly all native men own their shelter. Thoreau concludes that even if the farmer owns his house, “he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.” Here, Thoreau illustrates modern society’s reliance on material goods as a method to achieve happiness and greatness. He debunks this mode of thinking by revealing the need to first improve “the men who inhabit [the houses]” before remodeling the physical house itself. Thus, economy extends beyond a traditionally political system. Instead, Thoreau places value in the moral and spiritual understanding of life systems.
Thoreau’s economy deeply involves looking inward to one’s own spiritual and moral being. However, the author recognizes the difficulty of obtaining true economy in “civilized” life. Hence, he argues for simplicity. He states, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” For Thoreau, deliberateness is marked by simplicity. In order to be “awakened” to the goodness of life, one must abandon superfluous detail and reduce life to the essentials. Certainly, this is one of the primary reasons Thoreau provides great detail as to the monetary economy of his mode of life at Walden, specifically outlining his building plans and expenditures. He desires to demonstrate that riches are not necessarily drawn wealth, but can be obtained more readily in the simplicities of life.
Unfortunately, Thoreau acknowledges that civilization is too far removed from the natural world, trapped by luxury and heedless expense, which hinders the vast majority of humankind from inward improvement. Thoreau suggests that “the only cure for [society] is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.” Thus, Thoreau’s stay at Walden allows him to abandon “civilized” life, slow down his mode of living, and essentially reconnect with the economy of the natural world. By returning to nature’s economy, Thoreau is able to consider society in new ways that are nearly impossible when surrounded by the day to day needs of living.
Thoreau suggests that those who own land should sell it. Having the responsibility of ownership actually takes time, money and energy. Those without land/property can do pretty much as he pleases. He has a certain freedom that all men long for.
Those who live in poverty are really the richest of all. We don't need to own a farm to truly enjoy the nature around us. That much is free. Thoreau finds freedom in simplicity.
His famous quote from Walden is
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
He did not need possessions to enjoy nature and learn from it. So money and property are not necessary to sustain life.
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