What advice does Thoreau offer to those who live in poverty?
Henry Thoreau doesn’t specifically offer advice to anyone already living in dire poverty, per se. Instead, in the “Economy” chapter of Walden, he recommends simplifying one’s life as much as possible. This simplification extends to career choice and bank book tally. He sees wealth as a burden, not a benefit. He tells us in paragraph 96 that he found “by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living.” He did surveying work, wrote, lectured, and did some manual labor. In paragraph 98, he says, “In short, 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.” His needs were few, and he figured out how much money he needed to live the way he wanted to live. He didn’t need to accumulate more, just for the sake of having it.
He continues with this theme in the next chapter, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” where he tackles the topics of material possession, including land ownership. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he says at the end of the first paragraph. He fostered living not only a simple life, but a deliberate one. We don’t need to surround ourselves with a lot of meaningless stuff. He never owned property, either. “As long as possible live free and uncommitted,” he says in paragraph 5. If you owned a house or land, you were chained to it unnecessarily and permanently. This was not something he was willing to do. Yes, he lived in a simpler time, in some ways. Yet his suggestions are still good reminders for us today: prompting us to take the time to analyze what are the most important aspects of our lives. Work and possessions may not be as important as we are often led to believe, especially by advertisers and marketing experts.
You can find more of Thoreau’s advice along these lines in his essay “Life Without Principle,” as well as in the letters that he sent to friend H. G. O. Blake, compiled in the book Letters to a Spiritual Seeker (Edited by Bradley P. Dean, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004).
There might have to be some qualification needed here. Thoreau is quite strong on his assertions that material wealth and the drive for materialism helps to get in the way of understanding the nature of truth(s) and self:"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." This helps to highlight much of how Thoreau views wealth. Poverty, if chosen and self initiated, can lead to a better understanding, in Thoreau's mind, of how life should be as opposed to how it is. The drive for "simplicity" and the notion of leading a life where material exploits are not as valued as spiritual notions of the good is a critical one. Thoreau makes the active decision in pursuing this life. It is not very clear how Thoreau addresses how material inequality dictated by social conditions impacts this pursuit for truth and understanding.