Student Question

What does Thoreau mean by "economy" in Walden?

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In Walden, by "economy," Thoreau means the greatest possible simplicity in every aspect of life. Thoreau emphasizes the importance of not overcomplicating one's life with unnecessary items or pastimes, using an example of a doormat with which he has no space, no use for, nor time to clean. Though this example is an exaggeration, as a doormat is not so terribly burdensome, Thoreau argues that to accept the doormat would be to give in to "the beginnings of evil."

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"Economy" is the title of the first chapter of Walden and one of the most important principles by which Thoreau lived during his sojourn in the woods. Thoreau's meaning is not very different from the ordinary English meaning of the word, but there is a difference of emphasis which reveals Thoreau's philosophy. "Economy" normally refers to the allocation of resources to make the best use of them. One is therefore being economical if one goes shopping and acquires everything one needs as cheaply as possible, while purchasing no superfluous or extravagant items.

Thoreau extends the principle of economy beyond money to time, effort, energy, and thought. A good example of his attitude is his refusal to accept a doormat when a lady offers him one. This would not cost any money, but Thoreau is unwilling to add to the number of his possessions. He says that he has no space in which to put it, and he has no time to shake it. These points are obviously exaggerations, but they make the point that even the possession of a doormat would add slightly to the complexity of Thoreau's life. His idea of economy is for every aspect of life to be as simple as possible and for him to have nothing that he does not really need.

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