Every characteristic of our lives is chosen for us by society. From simple actions such as the clothes we wear, to decisions as monumental as the careers we pursue, we are not granted decisions to make, but social expectations to abide by. After over a decade of being taught what to think and how to perform, society demands you get a job. The most esteemed jobs are not necessarily a job you want, or even a profession you are passionate about, but one in which you will be considered successful by society. Like a priceless piece of art, this success adds no real value to our lives. The requirements continue as follows: settle down, start a family and buy a house. The reward for achieving such conformity and success comes in the ability to fill your house with expensive things. But for what purpose? Have you asked yourself if these are things you want or make you happy?
“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, dissects these choices in life. Forcing us to consider if we are simply staying alive or if we are actually living our lives. Thoreau spent two years living in the woods in an effort to live deliberately. His time at Walden Pond allowed him to reflect, think freely, make his own decisions, and determine his own outcomes. The opposition was a shot fired at a society that tells us every day what we want and who we are through civilization, capitalism, and consumerism. Thoreau urges us to choose to live deliberately and seek self-reliance because if not, society will choose a life for you.
The history of civilization can be dated back to 3500 BC in Mesopotamia (Adhikari). With like-minded groups of humans finally living together, cultures were formed and with them came many benefits. The quality of life for the humans living and functioning together grew exponentially as humans began working together to achieve common goals. Roles in the community helped increase productivity and pathed the way for innovation and the development of new technology. Civilizations also insured the safety and well-being of its citizens that were too old or sick to defend themselves.
Civilization is thought to be man’s greatest creation; however, Thoreau’s choice to abandon civilization and conduct one of the most famous experiments in history, is the first indication of his rejection of the culture and his caution against its detriments toward self-reliance. Thoreau became a refugee from civilization because avoiding civilization helped him avoided society’s expectations and allowed him to opportunity to live deliberately. In Walden, Thoreau argues that civilization allows people to become dependent on each other in a way that weakens mankind. “While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them” (56).
The negative effects of civilization on our free will are evident in today’s society. Western civilization has spoiled us in a way that has caused a culture of entitlement and an absence in thinking for ourselves. Because of the societal expectations that come with civilization, today’s society, especially my generation, has no idea what it feels like to live deliberately. Make no mistake, Thoreau was not a primitive man like members of his civilization thought him to be for living outside the structure of civilization; he made a conscious choice to avoid what he believed was a downfall to humanity by voluntarily living in poverty in order to reflect on his own values.
Thoreau publicly disagreed with many ideas of the American civilization including slavery and the Mexican-American War. To boycott his disagreements, Thoreau refused to pay the taxes that were funding these ideas. In 1846, Thoreau was arrested and spent the night in jail for tax delinquency. Soon after, Thoreau published his essay, “Civil Disobedience”, which forever changed how Americans fought back against civilization. This proclaimed activist manifesto can be directly linked to the 1960 American Counter Culture that focused on equal rights and the elimination of war, particularly, the Vietnam War. The participants of this social revolution rebelled by refusing to sign up for conscription, commonly known as the draft, to boycott their disagreements with the war, just as Thoreau once did before them (Costl).
The formation of civilization lead to the development of capitalism. The concept of division of labor made the production of goods grow exponentially, which shaped a wave of capitalistic ideas that filled society. The new belief of work giving life material meaning led to yet another step in the innovation of society and increased the wealth of the entire world.
Like civilization, Thoreau also rejected capitalism because he believed that it immorally weakened man-kind.
In the early years of our country, capitalism resulted in a number of immoral social problems including terrible working conditions and the exploitation of children. In Walden, Thoreau argues against people exhausting themselves for means that did not outweigh the effects on society. “Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine” (59).
Thoreau was not the first person to argue against capitalism. In 1848, Karl Marx published the “Communist Manifesto”, and argued his opinion against capitalism to make the world a better place. Marx argued that although modern work is efficient, it keeps workers from experiencing the fulfillment that makes work meaningful. Thoreau’s ideas, however, did not align with every aspect of Marx’s “Communist Manifesto”. Where Marx focused on civilization as a whole coming together to bring value back to human life, Thoreau focused more on the duty of the individual to have control over the change of their own life (“ECONOMY, Part I”).
This concept is echoed in today’s society in many notions, including the emphasis on choosing a profession based on how much money we will obtain or how successful society will see us as. Howard Zinn argues in his book, “A People’s History of The United States”, that “Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes” (Zinn 644). This is where my personal opinions on the topic stray. Although there are downsides evident in history, I believe that Capitalism is a natural form of economics that rewards people for hard work and dedication. Capitalism creates market competition that drive the price of goods down and requires firm to innovate their products to counter their competitors, both of witch, are good factors for the consumers.
Along with civilization and capitalism, Thoreau believed that consumerism led to yet another way to let society control you. In Walden, Thoreau argues that capitalist have no regard for the well-being of the individual consumer. “As far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched” (44). During this time, the consumer revolution changed the mindset of society from buying necessities of life to buying luxuries goods without purpose. The automation of the manufacturing process made consumer goods that had once been thought of as luxury items widely available for the first time (Openstax 249). This led to materialism and a social dependency on acquiring goods based on public opinion.
“Transcendentalists believed that all people could attain an understanding of the world that surpassed rational, sensory experience” (Openstax 364). Thoreau, being a transcendentalist, realized the importance in living a virtuous life over acquiring material things and urges us ask the question, what are the absolute necessities required for life? He argues that we need to find a balance between wealth and virtue and tested this idea during his time at Walden Pond by proving how little we actually need to survive and achieve happiness. Thoreau was indulged with this idea of controlling your own life. To do so, he preached the values of simplicity. By seeking self-reliance and living deliberately, Thoreau was able to avoid consumerism and in return, seek a better and happy life.
What can we learn from Thoreau and how does his experience apply to our modern society? The real message of Walden is not that in order to be happy, you have to leave civilization, boycott capitalism, or do without consumer products. The message is quite literally to “simplify, simplify” (Walden 144). In order to live deliberately and achieve self-reliance, you must live a simple life below your means, focus on a life of virtue rather than materialism, and understand the importance of being independent from society. Ask yourself, what do I truly need to be happy? In the end, you must remember, it is your life to live; the second you stop letting society tell you how to live it, is when you finally start living.