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Chapter 1. Economy 
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Post Chapter 1. Economy
Summary

I. the chief end of man,

II. the true necessaries and means of life

1. food
2. shelter
3. clothing
4. fuel

Necessaries interfer with the chief end when we do not live economically.

http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendenta ... er01a.html
Walden Study Text



Thu Jul 17, 2008 7:58 pm
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It's always interesting to me to consider an author's reason for writing and how he conceives his audience and purpose. This is really the first matter that Thoreau raises in "Economy." Why does he write about his experience in the woods? Because, he says, so many have made inquiries about his stay there that he judged there would be a general interest. But he appears to realize that these inquisitive people won't be his true audience. Anticipating what he will have to say in the book, he then says that perhaps "poor students" are his true audience. In fact, it's no wonder if it was diffficult for Thoreau to nail down his purpose and readers in this opening section. Who was he after all, to intrude upon anyone's attention, especially with such a diffiuclt-to-take message as he would deliver? He had published little and was not respected in his own town, seen as something of an oddity. He might have been most well-known for burning down a big section of Walden woods a year or so before the Walden period. So his speaking so authoritatively and boldly in Walden is pretty audacious.

He seems to at pains in this section to soften his message somewhat, to make an effort not to appear arrogant, but rather accepting of the fact that other people have other ways of looking at things. He makes his famous statement about the mass of men living lives of quiet desperation, but he offers exemptions to, for example, people who approach their pursuits with gusto. It becomes difficult to pin down this "mass of men." Finally, it seems that farmers are who he has in mind, because they appear the most encumbered and are unhappy with their lots, he believes. Although he himself raises crops at Walden and kept a garden for most of his life, he sees modern farming as step down from hunting/gathering and does not seem to favor keeping domesticated animals. I'm not sure I quite understand his attitude here. The yeoman farmer was Jefferson's ideal American, but not so for Thoreau. It would even seem that Thoreau is less in favor of farming than of commerce! And yet he had had ideas of buying farms himself, so he may have contradictory feelings. In "Economy" he presents his interest in farms as in the past and representing a narrow escape for him. Still, I wonder about a seeming lack of sympathy and support for the farmer.
DWill



Sat Jul 19, 2008 12:42 pm
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DWill wrote:
The yeoman farmer was Jefferson's ideal American, but not so for Thoreau. It would even seem that Thoreau is less in favor of farming than of commerce!


Will, that is a very good point. People commonly do not realize the burden of toil and debt that has been the history of farming in America. Even in Thoreau's time farmers were selling out and moving to better farmland in the midwest. In spite of the current high prices for commodities, farming is a depressing proposition because of widespread crop failure, perhaps from climate change, and the increase in input prices. When I was a child, there were almost 1000 farmers in the county. Today there are less than 50.

Tom



Sat Jul 19, 2008 2:59 pm
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Of course, agribusiness has a lot to do with the disappearance of the small farm. I judge the independent farmer to be viewed as almost a heroic figure today. It is a tough life, but some cling to it and believe in it. I was wondering about the elements of Thoreau's attitude toward farmers, why he doesn't seem to appreciate the way of life. Do you think that, if he could have been aware of the role that farming could play in preservation of the land far in the future, he might have thought differently? As it was, perhaps he viewed farmers as actually detracting from the natural landscape he preferred (wilder, undeveloped).
DW



Sat Jul 19, 2008 6:15 pm
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DWill,
Here's a thought on why Thoreau might have had a negative attitude toward farming. This is something I remember from my days studying anthropology. If you compare the amount of time and labor required for farming (even small scale) and that required for hunting and gathering, it is a far greater amount of both labor and time for farming. Farming also commits you to a pretty rigid schedule of tasks, day in and day out. By taking up an agrarian mode of economy, humans radically changed day to day living. Large amounts of time must be devoted to producing food, work becomes the focus of life. There is much less time for any other pursuits.


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Sat Jul 19, 2008 6:35 pm
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Saffron,
Yes, no doubt what you say about farming is true, and Thoreau, through observation, knew well that way of life.Could the spiritual effects of farming that Thoreau homes is on be true ones, do you think? Is it just a romantic fallacy that we/I have about farming and the spiritual goodness of living closer to the land? Does it really deaden the spirit, as Thoreau thinks? My dad (as a by-the-way) grew up on a dairy farm in Conn., the oldest son who was expected to carry on the tradition. The fact that he hated farm life gave him a tremendous spur to conceive an alternative, so he defied his father, went to college, and became a veterinarian. It's my favorite example of the value that a strong aversion can have for a person.
DW



Sat Jul 19, 2008 6:48 pm
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DWill,
I think it is difficult to really get at Thoreau's feelings and thoughts about farming, because he takes seemingly contradictory positions on farming (almost bought one). I do not think there is anything inherent in farming that deadens spiritual life. In fact, anything that one does "awake" (Chantcleer) is spiritual, even farming. I believe Thoreau would heartily agree with this. The majority of the population farmed in Thoreau's time, maybe he was making a more generalized statement about work done for the sake of earning a living, rather than as vocation. It is hard to understand why Thoreau comes down on farmers so hard.

"Is it just a romantic fallacy that we/I have about farming and the spiritual goodness of living closer to the land?"

I do think there is a bit of romanticizing of farming that goes on. Once an activity is seen as solely a means to something else, especially money, I think something important is lost. Living and working close to the land is not sufficient to produce a spiritual connection or experience. No matter how close you are living to the land if you do not have respect/right attitude toward it, I don't see how it can be spiritual.

Don't you wish you could ask Thoreau what he thinks about this?

Saffron


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Sat Jul 19, 2008 7:17 pm
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Quote:
Don't you wish you could ask Thoreau what he thinks about this?


I do, Saffron, but I try to keep in mind that, like anyone whom we might find interesting, he wouldn't be likely to have settled positions on everything, and would not necessarily think the same way way about something at different times. If our minds are "made up," that is probably not good! But we sometimes approach writers as though they had made-up minds.

I suppose that the farming life might in some way be the most traditionally-grounded of all ways, the most conservative. Maybe Thoreau was often exposed to this mindset. Remember the neighbor in Frost's poem "Mending Wall", who could only repeat the old saw, "Good fences make good neighbors," unthinkingly? What drove Thoreau crazy was people's belief that they could not change their conditions, or conceive of any alternative to what their parents and grandparents believed. It is a gross generalization, but farmers may tend to be people with extensive, strong roots, but not much for growth above the ground--branches, leaves, and flowers.

I did find passages in "Economy" that reflect a broader social critique, so it might be the case that, since Thoreau knows the farmer class the best, he writes about it more. T. compares the New England factory system to slavery; he says that the fall from the hunter to the farmer is almost as great as the fall from the farmer to the "operative." From another passage, I found that "operative" is his term for a factory worker. I guess we have to keep in mind that for T., Concord was most of the world ("I have travelled much in Concord.") It might seem at times to us to be a limited frame of reference.

DW



Mon Jul 21, 2008 7:02 am
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Hi guys, I am still reading Walden and enjoying it a lot.

Thoreau's ideas about economy lack quantitative realism. Sure, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle may seem more pure and unsullied than modern industry, but it only supports the tiniest fraction of human population. As agriculture emerged in the Fertile Crescent and Egypt in the Neolithic period it provided the resources to support a priestly caste who could be fed by the peasants. The earlier hunter-gatherer phase had become unsustainable due to all the big wild animals being eaten, leaving only the domesticated species. The priestly caste invented writing, while their friends the kings learned how to count. These developments allowed a transformative quantum expansion of human potential, known as civilisation.

It is worth reading Tim Flannery's book, The Endless Frontier, on the unsustainability of primitive life. He explains how the ancestors of American aborigines ate their way from the Bering Strait to Patagonia in 13000 YBP, with megafauna extinctions coinciding exactly with human arrival.

Until 1800 when the industrial revolution introduced economic growth the average human life expectancy was less than thirty years. Hobbes had quite a valuable insight regarding the value of law, which Thoreau derides. Against a Hobbesian realism he puts forward the noble savage idea, linked to Rousseau, ignoring how it is pure romance in practical terms. When Thoreau goes on to romanticise hunting he neglects to discuss extinction, saying for example that he would only shoot a bird if it was rare.

Thoreau's mentality, of an endless frontier abundance, is the great American delusion. Thoreau imagines the world as infinite when it it most definitely finite, hence the love-hate relationship people have with him. He muddles together beautiful ecological ideas with completely unrealistic dreams about their real potential as alternative methods of human life. The sacred grove is a beautiful dream, possible in protected contexts but impossible en masse.



Mon Jul 21, 2008 7:37 am
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Robert Tulip wrote:
Thoreau's ideas about economy lack quantitative realism.


Well, he does give financial statements for the cost of construction and food. I think you underestimate Thoreau's emphasis on creative potential. His model house is an example of how more can be done with less, and is still relevant when much of the world's population is poorly housed. Thoreau's hunter-gather fantasy I take as humorous bravado. My impression is that he was psychologically dependent on his younger sister Sophia and wasn't going anywhere. The unacknowledged source of his achievement was her support and encouragement.

Tom



Mon Jul 21, 2008 11:44 am
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http://www.walden.org/Institute/thoreau ... horeau.asp
Henry Seidel Canby: Thoreau

This Canby's valuable biography of Thoreau.

Tom



Mon Jul 21, 2008 9:09 pm
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Robert Tulip wrote:
Thoreau's mentality, of an endless frontier abundance, is the great American delusion. Thoreau imagines the world as infinite when it it most definitely finite, hence the love-hate relationship people have with him. He muddles together beautiful ecological ideas with completely unrealistic dreams about their real potential as alternative methods of human life. The sacred grove is a beautiful dream, possible in protected contexts but impossible en masse.


Hello Robert,
I certainly agree with everything you've said about the unsustainability of hunting-gathering, but I don't agree that Thoreau truly advocates this as a life for the masses to emulate. I think there is a difference between what HDT himself identifies with and holds as an ideal and what he believes can obtain in the world in which he lives. At least, I do not find any explicit statements from him that the errors in living that he points out can be corrected through a back-to-nature movement, similar to the uncorrupted Indian way of life. I see him as too much of a practical Yankee and as one respectful of realities, to propose that we should cancel civilization.

I should have page and line references handy, as Tom does. HDT says that others should not fell trees to build cabins as he did, because modern production methods can make material available at less cost and more efficiently. The "suburban box" of the average person can be entirely adequate constructed out of such materials. He also says that civilization is a net plus, that it has benefits for us if we can only learn to plot our own destinies independently, rather than being mastered by desire for goods and enslaved to traditional thinking. He says we can have the advantages of civilization while avoiding its evils.

He was prescient, I think, about resource limits, not so much in
Walden, but in other works such as the essay "Walking." What Thoreau does stand for, in my mind, is the need for humans to place restraints on appetites that can become insatiable. We are but one species, but we act as if no others matter. He was not a humanist in the sense that humans were the measure of all things. The other forms of life with which we share the planet matter just as much, and not simply for the benefit they can do us. He was perhaps the first biocentrist.

DWill



Tue Jul 22, 2008 7:08 pm
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DWill wrote:
I should have page and line references handy, as Tom does.


Will, my references are handy only because I have numbered every paragraph in the Gutenberg Walden and keep it on my desktop as a webpage. My references are to chapter and paragraph. On my computer, chapter 12, paragraph 3, looks like this:

Quote:
12.3 Poet. See those clouds; how they hang! That's the greatest thing I have seen to-day. There's nothing like it in old paintings, nothing like it in foreign lands -- unless when we were off the coast of Spain. That's a true Mediterranean sky. I thought, as I have my living to get, and have not eaten to-day, that I might go a-fishing. That's the true industry for poets. It is the only trade I have learned. Come, let's along.


Any sentence in this paragraph will be referenced by 12.3. For example:
Quote:
That's a true Mediterranean sky" (12.3).


In my experience this system is a great convenience, and I would like for it to be accepted as a common standard. By having the whole of Walden in a single webpage the text can be searched by . It's like having a perfect index. And I am never disoriented. When I look at a paragraph, I know which chapter and which paragraph. Page numbers are of little use unless everyone has the same text.

I will sent this version of Walden as an email attachment to anyone who wants it.

Tom



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[]
Tom said

Will, that is a very good point. People commonly do not realize the burden of toil and debt that has been the history of farming in America.
Tom[/quote]

I agree. I worked as a governess in the late '70s on an outback property (ranch). I loved the way of life, no TV, no phone, very little radio, plenty of magnificant country and room to live. However I recognised quite quickly that the price paid for this wonderful lifestyle was huge debt, anxiety and unending hard work. I suspect T could see this as the downside to farming.

I connected with this book on a lot of levels, but I loved Ts anti consumerism. I read the book at a time when I was starting to get hooked into the home improvement craze over running my country and this book grounded me. My thanks to who ever suggested it to the book club.

Jeanette



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After 9/11, our leaders told us that we needed to go out and spend money so that the terrorists would not think they'd won. More recently, we all received economic stimulus checks, money that the government borrowed to give to us so we would go out and buy things to stimulate the economy. It seems our most patriotic duty is is to keep the machine of consumerism well greased.

DW



Tue Jul 29, 2008 6:47 pm
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