What were the problems of modern society, according to Henry David Thoreau in Walden, and why did he believe simplicity was the solution?
Thoreau says, in part,
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
He believes that people have become overwhelmed by their possessions, that they feel they must work and work more in order to buy more and more stuff. They have houses that are too big, with rooms they don't need, and they fill those rooms with things they don't need. The more people feel compelled by materialist impulses, the more they acquire, and eventually, they find that they must work just to keep what they have. Thoreau thinks that men become desperate as a result of their feeling that they must work more and more and that they eventually resign themselves to such a life. When people choose simplicity instead, they do not buy a bigger house than they need or more stuff than they require for the purpose of living. This means that they can work so much less and use their time for those pursuits that make them happy.
There are many problems with modern life, according to Thoreau, but perhaps the worst is that mankind has become completely focused on acquisitiveness, at the expense of higher pursuits. Writing in the midst of the Market Revolution, Thoreau is horrified by modern life, claiming that "we live meanly, like ants," and that "our life is frittered away by detail." The pursuit of material success (and material goods) has made our lives "cluttered," and "ruined by luxury and heedless expense." Thoreau wants to suggest another course, one in which people focus on their inner lives and the beauty of the world around them. Against the problems of modern society, he offers a mantra: "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" The only solution for a life in which people are ruined by greed, ambition, and superficiality is a "Spartan simplicity of life and an elevation of purpose."