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Beyond Sustainable Economy: Henry David Thoreau

Published: 03.08.2017


Transcendentalism, a mid-19th century philosophical, political, and literary movement, which began in eastern Massachusetts, may be the first important American intellectual movement.    Although the primary figures of the movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), others also played a significant role.

Transcendentalism emerged as a response to a conflict within Unitarianism, an 18th century theological movement that understood God as a single entity or person, as distinguished from Trinitarianism, which viewed God as three persons coexisting in the same one being. Unitarians regarded Jesus Christ as a prophet and perhaps even a supernatural being, but not as God.  In addition to rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, Unitarians rejected the notion of original sin and predestination, maintaining that human striving was meaningful and, indeed, that humans, who were not inherently depraved, could aspire to divinity.

Unitarianism in early 19th century America was heavily influenced by the thought of British empiricist John Locke (1632-1704), who held that there was nothing in the human mind that was not previously a matter of sense perception.  Although this had the effect of undermining the Calvinist notion of original sin, it also had the effect of placing matter over spirit in the shaping of the human intellect.  Moreover, the Unitarians, again relying on Locke's empiricism, held that the accounts of miracles in the Bible provided proof of the truth of religion.

Those Unitarians who became transcendentalists rejected original sin and predestination, but they also rejected Locke's strict empiricism, maintaining, with rationalist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) that the mind existed as itself before any sense impressions were introduced, and German transcendental idealist Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), that the mind had categories of understanding or forms, such as space and time, that were not the result of experience but that made the acquisition of experience possible.  This thinking allowed the transcendentalists to place mind and spirit over matter, and was crucial to the acceptance by the transcendentalists of an idea found in the work of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), William Wordsworth (1770-1850), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)—that there can be a unity of human spirit and nature, and that nature, which includes human beings, has divine power.  The transcendentalists also rejected the notion, accepted by mainstream Unitarians, that the Bible provided proof of the truth of religion, being persuaded by David Hume (1711-1776) that there could be no satisfactory empirical proof of religion.

Although many people were involved in the transcendentalist movement, Emerson and Thoreau are often regarded as the most prominent. Emerson, who started off as a teacher and then a minister, left the church and started public speaking and writing on his ideas and philosophy about life and nature and the human mind.  Emerson regarded humans as "god[s] in ruins" and believed that humans could aspire to divinity given that Spirit pervades both nature and mind.  In order to transcend and to appreciate nature, which is necessary in order to understand reality, one had to abandon the ego and forego the belief that material objects had real value.  In this sense, Emerson's work reflects notions that are related to Aparigraha.


The transcendentalist whose work most reflected the idea of Aparigraha, however, was Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau was a poet, philosopher, historian, and an abolitionist with respect to human slavery.  Although Thoreau was a voluminous author, his best known works are Walden (first published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods), a book in which Thoreau promotes simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay, Resistance to Civil Government, or Civil Disobedience, in which Thoreau argues in favor of resistance to civil government as opposition to a morally unjust state.  Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Gandhi first read Walden in 1906 and he read Civil Disobedience when he was sitting in a South African jail for engaging in nonviolent protest against discrimination.  Gandhi subsequently published an essay on Thoreau's theory of civil disobedience and referred to Thoreau as "one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced." Thoreau's writings on natural history and philosophy are widely regarded as the early expression of what has become the environmental movement.

One of Thoreau's most important ideas was his radical simplicity.  He saw the acquisition of material wealth not only as unnecessary but as detrimental to spiritual development: "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. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than even the poor."  Thoreau believed that to be rich, one had to choose to be poor and he regarded "voluntary poverty" as necessary "to be an impartial or wise observer of human life."  Thoreau remarked, "[t]here are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers."  According to Thoreau, "[t]o be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust."  He noted that Chinese, Hindu, Persian, and Greek philosophers were poor "in outward riches" but were rich in terms of their inner, spiritual lives.

Thoreau was highly critical of the fact that most humans spend their lives pursuing material gain.  He observed that "[t]his world is a place of business.... It is nothing but work, work, work."  Thoreau recognized people have lost the meaning of their labor in an effort to earn monetary and material satisfaction: "The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get 'a good job,' but to perform well a certain work." He noted that:

If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure, that, for me, there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.

Thoreau noted the irony of how pursuing material gain was praised even though it had negative consequences and how self-realizing or spiritual behavior is criticized because it does not result in material gain: "If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen."  He recognized that pursuing wealth and material possessions jeopardized physical health and almost always involves: lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him; making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day, something to be tucked away in an old chest, or in a stocking behind the plastering, or, more safely, in the brick bank; no matter where, no matter how much or how little.

And Thoreau thought that the pursuit of wealth to be able to afford leisure later in one's life was absurd:

"This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once. 'What!' exclaim a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land, 'is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?' Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt."

Thoreau saw at least some commerce as largely indistinguishable from gambling, particularly when commerce has a detrimental impact on others or the environment:

"The gold-digger in the ravines of the mountains is as much a gambler as his fellow in the saloons of San Francisco. What difference does it make whether you shake dirt or shake dice? If you win, society is the loser. The gold-digger is the enemy of the honest laborer, whatever checks and compensations there may be. It is not enough to tell me that you worked hard to get your gold. So does the Devil work hard."

Thoreau recognized, as did the Jain sages, that craving for the material is endless and like trying to slay the hydra: "as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up."

On July 4, 1845, Thoreau embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living, building a cabin at Walden Pond on land owned by Emerson:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut abroad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

Thoreau's most significant message was to equate a meaningful life with a simple life:

"Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion."

There is a great deal in Thoreau that reflects a profound understanding of the doctrine of Aparigraha.  First, Thoreau not only recognized that the pursuit of wealth would have detrimental consequences for the environment and for the physical health of those who did nothing but work to increase their wealth, but he recognized that one's spirituality was adversely affected by one's attachment to material things.  Thoreau understood the relationship between attachment and hiṁsā, which is an essential part of aparigraha. Second,  Thoreau recognized that modern industrial society, by placing material wealth and possessions above all things, had devalued spiritual pursuits and condemned them as a waste of time, choosing instead to elevate the pursuit of the material to be a virtue.  Third, Thoreau repeatedly and consistently advocated simplicity as the only way to achieve a meaningful life. He maintained that we should consume only to the extent necessary, and he understood necessity to require very little. Indeed, it is clear that Thoreau recognized that hiṁsā resulted when we consumed more than absolutely necessary.


Title: Beyond Sustainable Economy
Author: Dr. Rudi Jansma, Dr. Sushma Singhvi
Publisher: Prakrit Bharati Academy

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Aparigraha
  2. David Hume
  3. Environment
  4. Gandhi
  5. Hume
  6. Immanuel Kant
  7. Kant
  8. Leibniz
  9. Space
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