How can I write an essay about what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said that money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul?

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chsmith1957 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Here’s help for writing your essay. This quote is found in paragraph 18 of the “Conclusion” chapter of Walden. It may be helpful to read the whole passage.

Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.

Thoreau liked to use literary devices like metaphors, similes, and analogies in his writing.  Here he does so with the phrase “which yields the most sugar and the most starch.” These are food analogies for things. He means that if you have to think about what you have to buy, you’ll be more selective. You’ll buy only things that please you (or are sweet to you, like sugar) and are personally fulfilling (like starchy foods are, like potatoes and pasta). His last sentence above is reminiscent of the Beatles’ song from the 1960s: “Say you don’t need no diamond ring, and I’ll be satisfied. / Tell me that you want the kind of things that money just can’t buy. / I don’t care too much for money, / Money can’t buy me love.”

Now, Thoreau does not advocate a life of poverty. Instead, he emphasizes the need to simplify one’s life and to live deliberately. This is a distinct difference. It begins with how you earn your money and how many possessions you acquire. Thoreau tells us in the “Economy” chapter: “I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living.” And also: “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.” And in the “Conclusion” chapter, he explains what happens when a person chooses to simplify: “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex.” Thoreau maintains that a person can live more authentically if he/she makes just as much money as he/she needs, or perhaps a little bit more.

What would this mean today, in practical terms? Well, let’s say you have $8,000 – and only this amount -- to buy a car. Brand-new cars often cost close to $20,000 or more these days. So you know you’ll have to buy a used or “pre-owned” one instead. You will probably have to do some research online and make some visits to some dealerships in order to figure out exactly what kind of car you can afford. You’ll have to test drive a few and get a mechanic to check out the best-looking option. You need to make sure this car is worth every dime, because you cannot afford to go over budget. When you finally find the perfect car, you’ll feel pretty good about your choice and the process it took to find it. You will be satisfied with yourself. And you will probably value the car a great deal. You will be careful when you drive it. You will take care of it by checking the oil, getting regular service, and so on. You want the car to last as long as possible, because it has cost you some hard-earned money.

On the other hand, let’s say you are Mister Big Bucks. Money is no object. When you are in the mood to buy a new car to add to your six-bay garage, you go for the glitziest model you can. After all, you have a high reputation to maintain, and you want to impress everyone who sees you. So you go for a high-end sports car that costs $50,000 or much more. You can afford it, so why not? You get all the extra features possible, because you feel you have to. Once you own the car, you take it out on the road yourself only a few times, just to feel what it’s like to drive it and to drive fast. You have other cars for daily use, as well as a garage staff to keep them all in good shape. Then one day you take the sports car out for a drive. There’s some gravel on the road, and when you have to stop for another car, you hit the brake hard. You and your car spin out and hit a tree. You are okay, and you didn’t hit the other car. But the passenger side of your sports car has a huge dent in it. It’ll cost you thousands to get a new door and side panels. You may decide to pay for the repairs, if you like the car. Or you may decide that it’s just not worth fixing it – who wants a car that’s been damaged? -- and you figure you’ll just buy another new car to replace it. After all, you can afford it, and it’s only money.

The first person in this example is living “near the bone,” as Thoreau says. There’s very little fat in his/her savings account, so every penny and every purchase is important. The second person is living with “superfluous” wealth and is therefore buying “superfluities,” or things that don’t really matter to him/her. The more authentic life follows the first model, according to Thoreau.

Read the study guide:
Walden

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