There is much to commend the writings of Henry David Thoreau. His ruminations — contemplations might be a more appropriate word — on the relationship of humans to their environment, and on the value of quiet reflection vice highly audible proclamations from professional politicians, are well worth considering. Thoreau, obviously was no idiot. As with the Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, there are some highly admirable observations regarding the artificiality and occasionally inhumane ways in which most people are forced by circumstances to conduct their daily lives. When contemplating the superficial way in which people exchange ideas and thoughts, and the motivating element of commerce behind such expressions, he notes in his article “Life Without Principle” the rare yet infinitely welcome manner in which someone might inquire as to his (Thoreau’s) inner thoughts without regard to pecuniary considerations. The following quotation from his article illustrates he thinking:
"The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer. I am surprised, as well as delighted, when this happens, it is such a rare use he would make of me, as if he were acquainted with the tool. Commonly, if men want anything of me, it is only to know how many acres I make of their land, — since I am a surveyor, — or, at most, what trivial news I have burdened myself with. They never will go to law for my meat; they prefer the shell.”
Similarly, Thoreau’s attitude regarding the dominant role in most people’s lives of exchanging their labor for the meager financial resources necessary to survive is interesting from a purely academic perspective. As he begins his deliberations on this issue, he suggests of the reader, “Let us consider the ways in which we spend our lives.” Taking direct aim at the fundamental premise of commerce, he proceeds to denigrate the professionalism that many bring to their otherwise mundane occupations:
"Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.”
Then, Thoreau follows this judgment with the following recommendation for the benefit of society as a whole:
"The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get 'a good job,' but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends. Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it. . . It is remarkable that there are few men so well employed, so much to their minds, but that a little money or fame would commonly buy them off from their present pursuit. I see advertisements for active young men, as if activity were the whole of a young man's capital. . .It is remarkable that there is little or nothing to be remembered written on the subject of getting a living; how to make getting a living not merely honest and honorable, but altogether inviting and glorious; for if getting a living is not so, then living is not.”
On the surface, Thoreau’s philosophy of life is entirely meritorious from an idyllic sort of perspective. From a practical perspective, however, his writings leave much to be desired. There is much for which to apologize with regard to the history of the American labor movement, especially during the period in which Thoreau lived. The industrial revolution and the westward expansion of the United States involved human rights violations that would prompt wide-scale calls for economic sanctions and divestment from the United States were today’s standards applied then. What Thoreau failed to grasp, however, was the natural tendency of many people to strive for economic advancement and the absolute necessity for lower-wage jobs to conduct the labor that built railroads across North America, that built the ships that enabled maritime commerce, and that built and operated the factories that provided, ultimately, higher standards of living enjoyed not just in the United States but in Great Britain, Germany, France and elsewhere. Could these “advancements” — the quotations marks are a recognition that Thoreau and his followers valued human relationships and a more convivial relationship of man to nature than the industrial revolution allowed — have proven more deleterious to mankind than would have been the case had that revolution never occurred? Could the industrial revolution have occurred under more humane and environmentally friendly circumstances? These questions are worth asking, especially if one is paid a handsome salary to sit in universities and question the merits of technology and the environment. There’s no question man has polluted his environment, but even Thoreau would have had to note the importance of pencils, typewriters, computers, etc., in enabling the kind of pastimes in which he preferred to indulge. In other words, Thoreau was free to enjoy the fruits of the very labors he ridiculed. If there is pride in manual labor, no matter the job, then Thoreau’s observations are rendered not just useless, but enormously arrogant.
Life is a matter of balance. As noted, in an ideal world, the kinds of prescriptions advanced by the Thoreaus and Marxes of the world would be more practical. Humans, however, are inherently imperfect, and the more of them there are, the more differences there will be regarding priorities and prescriptions. One point Marx invariably sublimated to his political agenda was the fact of government, and that government could either be democratic or nondemocratic, and that only the latter could compel the kinds of egalitarian and quasi-utopian policies and practices he and Thoreau envisioned. And the odds that things would have worked out the way they envisioned were incredibly high. In other words, Thoreau’s writings are marginally practical and applicable. They are, however, wonderful visions for a world that doesn’t exist.
Henry David Thoreau belonged to a world that was completely different from the present world. The world now has shrunk to a village. His philosophy might have been great to the yester world where the population was limited and his work space was confined. Some of his ideas are absurd. For instance, non payment of taxes or his views against having institutions like post offices or railway are quite quizzical. In the present scenario one can't imagine a world without such public institutions. If railways are closed it will be a chaos. So, Thoreau is a fish out of water in the modern world