Hard Labor: Thoreau and the Meaning of Work

“Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry, philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we call reality, and say, This is, and nomistake…”

Henry David Thoreau


Thoreau was always amazed that more people didn’t try to find rock bottom for themselves. He saw his fellow men and women living terribly encumbered lives, encumbered mostly by their unquestioned notions of how things must be. He observed farmers owned by the demands of their farms; householders enslaved to their mortgage payments; immigrants working their lives away to buy meat for their families, but with no time to go fishing; vigorous youth postponing their dreams and talents until old age in order to make money during their prime; travellers waiting until they had earned their coach fare instead of going by foot now; and self-imposed servitude and drudgery of all types imaginable. He says, in his typical humorous exaggeration: “I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders ‘until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into their stomachs’; or dwelling chained to life at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars—even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes I daily witness…”

More than any other commonplace notion, Thoreau attacked (largely through satire) his fellows’ commonplace notions about work. “Economy” is the first and largest chapter of Walden, and Thoreau gives the subject such primary consideration because he saw work consuming people’s lives before they had much of a chance to live, before they had enough time to reflect on the relationship of work to life for themselves. To Thoreau, the problem of finding one’s right work and integrating it into other proper demands on one’s life was a challenge that needed to be tackled early and with great energy if young adults weren’t going to step blindly into traps that were indeed much easier to step into than to get out of.

It wasn’t that Thoreau believed there was one kind of work that was superior to all others, or that one kind of work should last one’s whole lifetime. What was important to him was that we didn’t just fall into it, that it was our own work and not our father’s. He also expected that it should do no harm to others and that it should do no harm to ourselves. In particular, it should not consume us; it should leave us time and energy for observation and creative thinking, for play and spontaneity, for adventure and experimentation. He sadly realized that many seemed to have no real interest in such things, and confessed that he had nothing to say to those who “appear to love labor for its own sake, or perhaps because it keeps them out of worse mischief” nor to those “who would not know what to do with more leisure than they now enjoy.” But to those who feel alienated, overworked, underpaid, bored, exhausted, or in some way trapped by their work, he had a suggestion that may apply as well to­day as it did then.

His observation throughout Walden is that we “need” too much, that our lives are cluttered and hopelessly complicated, “frittered away by details.” It is to provide ourselves with all of our so-called needs that we become work-slaves, and his suggestion was to need less, to question each and every thing we call a need, and to ask ourselves honestly: is it a need or a superfluity? Are the things that we obtain in life, that we consume, really worth the price we pay for them? Thoreau equates the cost of a thing with the amount of time it takes to afford it. And he perceives that most of what we work for is not worth the ef­fort, is not necessary and is finally an encumbrance that destroys our freedom in two ways: both in working to obtain it and then having it, protecting it, maintaining it.

Most of us, for example, assume without much reflection that the good life will include a “decent” house to live in. We want to own something at least as comfortable, if not as fancy, as our neighbors have, something finer than our fathers and mothers had. We call that progress, and we “progress” so far that we altogether forget that houses were originally shelters from the extremes of weather. Thoreau loves to think our present “needs” back to their origins, and to remind us again and again that they are not so much needs as we think they are, but mostly superfluities. And more, to remind us how much they really cost. As for these things we call our homes, around which many of us perhaps live too much of our lives, sheltered not only from the weather but from existence itself, Thoreau says they cost us altogether too much, much more than they are worth.

Translate his premise into modern day finances. If we buy an average house today, and earn an aver­age wage with which to pay for it, it will cost us ten, perhaps fifteen or twenty years of our work lives, and that’s if we buy nothing else in the meantime, not even food. Thoreau says this cost is too high; it usurps too much of our time that might be used for other things. He feels that life is too precious to spend that much of it for a place to hang our hats or to get in out of the rain. We need to step back from this thoughtless, mechanical behavior and think it through for ourselves: what are we really buying, and what are we really selling of ourselves to pay for it? We need to ask before we get too deeply in debt, too committed in one direction, too overextended, how is one’s life well lived? How is one’s time in the flesh well spent? Surely, Thoreau thinks, not de­voted to shelter. That is too low. We have more im­portant things to build.

He talks about other so-called necessities in the same spirit. How much do we give up for them; how much do they really cost us? In the end, do we not perhaps waste our souls putting bread on the table and clothes on our backs. Isn’t it possible to think through these problems in living (in providing our­selves a living) with a little more clarity about what is good for us, and for mankind, and finally for the planet itself, which now lives on the brink of catastrophe as we go on blithely eating our beefsteak and building our houses?



Thoreau observes there are four things we need in life in modest portions: food, and in colder climates, clothing, shelter, and fuel. These are the true necessities, and need to be worked for in order to sustain life, though Thoreau believes that a life reduced to these necessities could be easily main­tained, and not a hardship. At Walden Pond he built his own humble but elegant cabin for $28.121/2. He raised a vegetable garden and a small bean patch, which was his cash crop. He gathered his own wood for his fireplace, and was content with hand-me­-down clothes and patches. For those who would say, that’s all right for him, but not everybody wants to live that way, he insists that he is not suggesting anyone follow his lifestyle; rather that people think through these problems of earning a living for themselves and come up with their own creative solutions. But if we are among those who feel we are wasting too much of our lives unhappily bound to our work, whatever avenue we choose to escape from work slavery will have to be based on the economy of needing less.

What does it mean in our times to need less? In a society where standard of living is measured strictly by possessions and purchasing power (as opposed to other values—say, beauty, wisdom, spaciousness, harmony), what is the chance that any other than the rare, inwardly secure individual will ever see his or her way to Thoreau’s principles? The reason Thoreau won’t appeal to many is that his philo­sophy is based on the common sense of keeping one’s life loose and simple—unencumbered by ex­cessive institutional affiliation, social roles and material things. And most people can’t live by com­mon sense because they have too much personal in­security always nagging at them. The problems are manifold.

For one, work (jobs) and the things that our work buys for us have more to do with identity than material. We need the fancy home, the color televi­sion, the new automobile, the bigger office (not to mention the home video games, the riding lawn mower, the fur coat, the Caribbean vacation) not very much for themselves, but for how they identify us to others. We are identity impoverished without our roles and possessions. If we don’t work someplace (for some institution or some important firm or person), we don’t feel like anybody. If we don’t own this or that thing that our neighbors own or that we see paraded on television, we feel inadequate, a failure.

Thoreau says in “Economy,” when a person “has obtained those things which are necessary to life [food, clothing, shelter, fuel], there is another alternative to obtaining the superfluities; and that is to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.” But what Thoreau’s obser­vation overlooks is that our pursuit of more of the same is not for more of the same, materially speak­ing, but for more evidence that we are somebody, that we are significant. Inside we do not feel it, or we do not feel enough of it, so we make the age-old mistake of building our lives from the outside-in, lay­ing up treasures in the form of material riches or abstract status that material riches provide us, until we become as they are—superficial—and we lose all apprehension of our naked souls, and they shrivel up for lack of attention, for lack of exercise.

In the 1930s grown men jumped out of windows when they lost their fortunes in the stock market crash, and very few people saw the absurdity of it. Most saw it as perhaps a lack of courage to start again, instead of a clear example of how completely our identity can get tied up with outer symbols, and what terrifying hollowness man can achieve for him­self when he learns to value his life by what he has.

I knew a woman who tried to commit suicide when her daughter broke an engagement at the last moment, after all the plans were made, all the guests were invited. This is a woman who was and is viewed as entirely sane, both before and after the shock of her disappointment. There are many people in asy­lums with a greater sense of self than this.

So I think Thoreau underrates, or at least under­states, the motives behind our drives for things and the work we are willing to perform to obtain them. Inside we are identity impoverished, and thus these outer accoutrements represent our very selves, the best selves we have, though surely it will not take much wind to blow away the identity built from the outside-in. Vaguely we know this, which com­pounds our insecurity, makes us insecure about how insecure we are. Still, once one starts to travel in this direction, it is not easy to turn back. The Bible says this in such axioms as “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” or “man cannot serve God and mammon too.”

It seems that Thoreau (or any of the prophets for that matter) can make all the sense in the world, and the masses will continue to lead their lives of quiet desperation (since the advent of motorcycles, snow­mobiles, jet planes, power lawn mowers, chain saws, trash compactors, etc., not so quiet desperation). And he is himself aware of his limited audience, and thus addresses his book to those who are openly discontent, to those who are grumbling about their lot, or at least idly complaining. Certainly the com­plaining, the grumbling, now as then, is loud and widespread enough if we perk up our ears and listen. Everywhere, in our car pools, in the hallways and lunchrooms and offices of our work headquarters, in our song lyrics, in our jokes, everywhere we want to look or listen, we hear the rumblings of discontent: Well, back to the grind…. Another day, another dollar (or today, another day, another half­-dollar)…. Take this job and shove it…. Thank God it’s Friday …. After I retire, I’ll start living…. Happy Hour (implying that now that the day is over, one has reason to celebrate, to be happy)…. If the words we say to ourselves and to each other are true, we feel very bogged down by our work and get very little genuine fulfillment.

But unfortunately the key idea in Thoreau’s observation is that the complaining is idle. It is not thoughtful, not considerate, thus not likely to lead anywhere, because without our work and the things it buys for us, we don’t know who we are and we fear we are nobody. We can’t take seriously Thoreau’s suggestion of needing less because every superficial thing that we surrender brings us one step closer to confronting our lack of inner strength to stand naked in the world, apart from our material things and social roles, and still find ourselves and life worthwhile.

So the work world complains, grumbles, but id­ly. It seems almost part of the job to complain about it, a release valve built in to handle the excess pressure. Whatever our jobs —professional, clerical, blue collar, service—most of us seem to sense somewhere inside ourselves that they stand between us and our underlying sense of insignificance, of nobodiness. Thus while we are complaining, we are sl1so holding on for dear life, and no thought is quite as bad as the thought that we might lose the job about which we complain so much.

This is the main reason that Thoreau’s uncom­mon common sense does not penetrate. Society is not arranged, reformed, as of yet so that its children grow up feeling identified with existence. With few exceptions, we grow up instead feeling alienated, alone, worthless, frightened, and we spend our lives trying to cover over this inner turmoil rather than confront it. Thus our jobs provide us with relief in another way. Not only do they supply us with an outer role as a substitute for an inner identity; not only do they supply us with our toys and baubles and various material status symbols; they also pro­vide us with a fixed, even rigid, routine through which we can numb ourselves and make the time of our lives pass more comfortably (insofar as numb is comfortable). In short, our jobs provide us with a daily, ongoing distraction from our lack of inner identity, inner development, integration into whole human beings. We become, through the deadly routine of our jobs, too bust, too worn out, too fragmented to work on our sorely unworked-out selves. It shows up, for example, in our envy of our friends; in our hostility toward a new idea or ex­perimentation in general; in our subtle violence and bully tactics toward our children, students, or fellow employees; in our possessiveness and jealousy in our love relationships; in our feelings of sexual inade­quacy; in our general lack of contact with and lack of appreciation of the animal and emotional parts of our being.

So while our jobs provide us with a role and money to maintain our superficial identity, perhaps more important, they also provide us with a rhythm of busyness which keeps the lid on things; and all neatly camouflaged as responsibility, breadwinning, sacrificing ourselves for our children, good citizen­ship. Pad the routine with a lot of other distrac­tions —television, sports, games, drugs, movies, nightclubs—and we are covered. We don’t have to see what we are doing to ourselves, nor what we are not doing, until we lose our jobs through unemploy­ment or retirement.

In this recent unemployment crisis, for example, the incidents of wife-beating and child abuse have risen dramatically among the frustrated unem­ployed, who now have to sit home long hours with nothing to do. Likewise, there is a clear statistical relationship between unemployment and suicide, clinical depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, and the like. Almost nobody seems to be able simply to stand back from his or her situation (the lost job, which, more likely than not, was despised in the first place), and see it as an opportunity for a new begin­ning, an opportunity to experiment with life, to take a new risk, to revive an old dream, to be a pioneer of sorts, to take the challenge to live closer to the bone and see what can be created out of the ashes of the loss.

I think Thoreau’s idea to need less is ultimately the right solution, but that the audience, largely speaking, is still as unreceptive to it as ever. Certain­ly we have now come to a pass where the whole issue of work and consumerism needs to be re-examined, though the unimaginative politicians and union leaders are still shouting the usual nonsense of back­-to-the-good-old-days of full employment. The eco­nomic experts mostly agree that the good old days are gone forever, that high unemployment is here to stay, and with it, considerably reduced spending power and considerably expanded free time. It looks like, whether we like it or not, ready or not, we are going to have to live with considerably less fluff than we’ve grown accustomed to.

But need this be a curse? More time, fewer things. Isn’t there a little bit in each of us that would welcome such a change? Could we not view this in­evitability as an opportunity to take Thoreau (and other prophets—Christ, for example) seriously? For somebody will have to lead us through this transi­tion if we are not simply to destroy ourselves and the world with us.



I see the transition as thus: we must soon learn (many of us, not only the rare individual) to value sensitivity over satiation. As we are now, modern humankind is satiation-oriented. We crave to be full because inwardly we feel empty. We crave to be entertained, because inwardly we feel bored. We want our lives full of routines, noise, pleasures, things, various and plentiful escapes from solitude, and we cry out in pain when there is a spare mo­ment. We are disturbed, but the disturbance is so widespread, so commonplace, that we can no longer see it—and the individual who longs to spend some quiet time with himself or herself is considered strange.

Our desires for satiation begin to overlap each other. We eat our sweets while watching television while carrying on conversations while reading a magazine while petting the dog…. Pac Man-type games fill up every corner of many public places, like restaurants, for fear there might be a spare moment that goes unused somewhere. One can’t go to the public beach and get away from the portable radio. Workaholics are becoming as common as alcoholics, and many combine both to be doubly covered. This restless busyness, this consumer-satiation approach to our lives has now reached crisis proportions in the affluent societies, to the point that we are seriously wasting away the world’s resources to feed it, to satisfy our need to escape ourselves by gorging one thing or another. I know personally one woman who has a thousand-dollar-a-month allowance for frivo­lous spending, merely as a pastime. Jackie Onassis, with her acres of warehouses of possessions, is a na­tional heroine. Television shows like Dallas or Falcon Crest, with their emphasis on conspicuous wealth and consumerism, are sure successes with the American audiences.

Now, in the late 1900s, this outside-in way of liv­ing has to come to a stop or the human being is destined, like the dinosaur, to become another failed experiment of nature—only this time taking every­thing else, the whole planet, along with it. In our escapist desires to glut ourselves, to have more than our share, to satiate our ever-expanding appetites, we are destroying the planet. Already the Amazon rain forest, which provides twenty percent of the world’s oxygen, is being depleted and turned into a desert at the rate of 33,000 square miles per year (an area the size of the state of Maine). Hundreds of beautiful, remote, formerly abundant Canadian lakes are now dead from acid rain. Cancer, clearly determined to be a disease of opulence, now claims one of four, and will claim one of three by the end of the century.

A century and a half ago, Thoreau could look at the individual and see the harm done, the potential lost, in living for satiation. But then it was still most­ly visible for that individual. His impact on the whole civilization was still negligible. Now it is dif­ferent. Now the individuals who need their vora­cious appetites for things, for status, for pleasures filled and filled and filled again have added up to be a significant drain on the earth’s resources. She is hardly able to balance herself against the greedy creatures who would consistently, thoughtlessly, take more out than they would give back, and then want to protect their “wealth,” their luxurious liv­ing, by force against those who haven’t enough to live. And to satisfy our appetites, which have almost nothing to do with our needs, we are destroying our­selves—akin to the fat man in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life who eats until he explodes.

In Walden, Thoreau tries to show us that it is much more rewarding to base one’s life on sensitivity than satiation. He teaches us, by his example, the pleasures of becoming intimate with even the small details of one’s surroundings; the pleasures of becom­ing watchful and observant of the everyday wonders of creation; the pleasures of those rare individuals who refine their beings so as to pluck the finer fruits of life; the pleasures of tuning oneself in harmony with the observable laws of the universe, of embrac­ing all, even death, as a part of a glorious process; the pleasures of a leisurely morning with a good book or an afternoon’s huckleberry party; the pleasures of in­timate involvement with one’s life processes ­building one’s own house, raising one’s own food (or at least a portion of it), fetching one’s own water and firewood, sorting out one’s own thoughts. These pleasures begat of sensitivity, inner space, quietude, and harmony with the rest of life are our one real alternative to the shallower, more mundane plea­sures of satiation, the destructive pleasures of power and consumption which always leave us hungry for more, which always lead to addiction and dissipa­tion, not only for the individuals who live by them, but finally for the planet herself.

As children of sensitivity, we become true care­takers of the earth, instead of her destroyers. For those of us who are not ostriches, it is becoming un­mistakably clear that we are living on the edge of global disaster, global suicide—that we are in great peril of being the generation that wastes the future of this planet for all time, that leaves nothing but pain, misery, and death as our legacy for our own beloved children.

The solution, the turnaround, will be a matter of consciousness now. Legislation and political action never lead the way, and in our present circumstances are doomed to come too little, too late. The best hope we have is that enough individual conscious­ness will grow together toward sensitivity to effec­tively counterbalance the others still trying to gorge themselves. Perhaps there are enough of us who are becoming ever so subtly bored with gorging now, and are ready, just in the nick of time, to turn to other deeper, more intrinsic satisfactions. Henry Miller dreams it thus in his book, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird: “The world of things is fast drawing to a close. It is inevitable. For the labor of man, his cun­ning and inventiveness, have been in vain. The mind of man is beginning to look not merely into space and the mysteries concealed therein but to some greater level of being. His thoughts already move in new dimensions. More and more he seeks to live imaginatively, daringly, in accord with his own divine nature. He is thoroughly sick of machines, of therapies which offer no balm, of religions and philosophies which have no rapport with the magi­cal existence he is about to lead. He has come to perceive that life is everywhere, in all things, in the edges of the universe as well as the center.”

Either Miller’s dream comes true, or we face the holocaust. Do we stand at the end of time for our small corner of the universe, or are we at the begin­ning of a new humankind? I, for one, am as hopeful as Miller for the emergence of a new human being, but as frightened as the most ardent doomsdayer that it may be too late.


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