Thursday, January 31, 2013

Counterbalance

Thoreau's "Economy" covers a great deal of material, with a focus on the search for self-actualization. According to Thoreau, this begins by determining the necessities of life, which cannot be found in the ordinary labor of men or the search for wealth and luxury in everyday life. Our socialization towards obtaining luxury crowds our lives and minds, leaving no room to question even the most basic premises of our existence or to enjoy the same. Thoreau questions humankind’s tendency to overshadow the minds of younger generations with trivia and tradition. This indoctrination teaches our youth to accept the values and beliefs of our older generations, without teaching them to examine the same or to require proof of any their claims. He believes age has no benefit over youth and points out that even ancient philosophers fell prey to this tendency, writing about the vagaries of nail length and forestry in addition to great works of thought. He disdains the purported wisdom of elders and relates the tale of a farmer, who spends his day staring at the evidence that disproves his long-held beliefs, without ever questioning them. Thoreau takes this as a sign that humankind would do better were we to look to the universe for counsel, rather than our elders and neighbors.

According to Thoreau, the best life can be obtained by first paring down our possessions to the barest minimum, which consists of nutrition, shelter, clothing, and fuel. Everything else is a luxury and a hindrance to self-actualization. He offers the examples of famous ancient philosophers, who lived simple lives free of wealth. Once man's most basic needs are met, Thoreau opines, he can improve upon his metaphorical wealth, which Thoreau defines as the search for self. To illustrate his point, Thoreau recounts an anecdote in which an impoverished Indian man is unable to sell baskets to a rich white man. While the Indian wastes his time with a focus on wealth, Thoreau spends his time focusing on life. Thoreau invites his readers to consider which man profited more from their choice. Thoreau continues to expound on this theme with the tale of an incident in which he attempted to order a practical but unfashionable coat from his tailoress. The tailoress was confused by his request, so certain in her belief that he could not possibly want something out of style. The tailoress had been so indoctrinated by society that she failed to understand value of the utility in his order. Thoreau further relates tales of primitive homes and diets, including those of American Indians and early New England settlers. These homes were more than sufficient for the needs of Man, while offering the advantage of taking little time and energy to obtain, thus offering time for Thoreau's advised search. Regardless of the advantages of utilitarian clothing, shelter, and nutrition, most people never even consider such things, and needlessly labor their entire lives to obtain luxury, simply because they are socialized to do so. These anecdotes relate to Thoreau's larger argument, which seems to be that people cannot be happy without self-actualization, and that they cannot reach self-actualization without first questioning society’s arbitrary rules and values, including and especially that of materialism. We would be happier, Thoreau seems to be saying, were we to abandon these false notions and embrace simpler lives. To this end, Thoreau makes a number of strong points, especially that most people are not fulfilled by a quest for wealth, and that being unable to question the ideas behind this quest stunt the growth of individuals in our society.

A number of assumptions flaws “Economy” overall. First, the thrust of Thoreau’s argument seems to be that since he did not find joy or purpose in his own labor, or in art, fashion, or architecture, no one can do so; thus, everyone is miserable, deep down inside. As an example of his hypocrisy, he recounts his own satisfaction with building his shelter, but doesn’t consider that a common laborer may feel the same satisfaction when building someone else’s shelter, or in completing these types of menial tasks for the betterment of their family. Next, he assumes that even those who would be happier without a search for materialism would be able to utilize their freedom with intellectual exercise; despite much evidence that the common laborer may not be able to grasp the highbrow concepts in which Thoreau glories. Last, Thoreau assumes that every man who would be happier without materialism and with the intellectual capacity to search for self-actualization would find it via the means that Thoreau has enjoyed. Overall, Thoreau seems to see his own preference for philosophical exercise via privation as something that everyone can and should embrace, no matter their own talents or joys. Additionally, Thoreau shows a strange double standard throughout the text. He spends much ink in admiring the simple homes of early settlers, but instead of choosing this type of home, Thoreau builds a standard cabin which had been previously occupied by the exact type of people whom he is advising choose the simpler type of shelter. Thoreau waxes eloquent on the topic of self-sufficiency, but elides over the immense help that he received for his short-term ‘experiment’. He uses the data gathered in his short-term experiment to recommend a course of action for other men, but discounts this help altogether in his calculations. As these examples show, he repeatedly offers advice for others that he found unrealistic for himself. These flaws seriously mar this work.

Thoreau’s “Economy” does offer a number of worthy insights. His insistence that “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof" (Thoreau 9) strikes me as particularly true, as elucidated in his anecdotes regarding the farmer and the tailoress. How much happier would the farmer be if he threw out traditions in favor of logic? How many more trendy frocks could the tailoress own if she refrained from disdaining practicality over fashion? Thoreau also makes a good case against materialism, noting that the "luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another” (27). As Thoreau points out, if civilization is wealth, then the squalid living conditions of our impoverished class certainly does mark modern man as less than civilized. Finally, Thoreau repeatedly opines that each man should choose his own kind of life, stating that the “life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?" (16). This point cannot be emphasized enough, as it illuminates both his more valid points, and the irony in Thoreau’s assumptions. Nevertheless, in the end, it is obvious that while “Economy” offers a number of insights into the lives of humankind, it is a largely romantic work.

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