Thoreau and the Simple Life

Thoreau and the Simple Life

The issue of a new American edition of Thoreau’s works in twenty volumes is a reminder in this age of luxurious civilisation that the chief prophet of the simple life is yet a force to be reckoned with. How great a change in the world’s estimation of Thoreau, since the day when he carried up to his little study, at the top of his father’s house in Concord, the seven hundred unsaleable copies of his “Week on the Concord River” which had been returned to him by the publisher, and then recorded in his journal: “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself”! The “Rural Humbug” and “Yankee Diogenes,” as his contemporaries styled him, is being more and more recognised as one of the greatest thinkers and writers whom America has produced.

Yet even to this day there is a tendency among literary men to misunderstand and depreciate Thoreau, just as there is a tendency to miss the true meaning of the principles expounded by him. It has of late become somewhat fashionable to talk and write of simplification, and Pastor Charles Wagner’s little book on “The Simple Life” is said to have had a large circulation both in Europe and America, doubtless owing to the fact that his view of the subject is one which makes no demand on the conscience of his readers, but rather aims at obscuring an unpopular doctrine in a cloud of agreeable talk. Certainly the simplicity preached by the polite pastor, and discussed by the many well-to-do readers of his book, is a very different virtue from that which Thoreau had in mind, not only during his comparatively brief experiment at Walden, but through the twenty active years of his strenuous life.

Now, simplification may be viewed under two aspects, the personal and the social. Personal simplicity is a sign, not of asceticism, as is often wrongly supposed, but of the triumph of genuine taste over traditional habit; a wise man simplifies, because, on the whole, he derives more satisfaction from simplicity than from abundance. But while it is important not to overburden one’s self with “comforts,” it is no less important not to overburden other persons with the labour of producing them; and it is this social and humanitarian view of the question which is so frequently evaded. The hard work of the world has to be done by someone. As Thoreau says: “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations also.”

Unfortunately, this humane consideration finds no expression in Pastor Wagner’s essay. The simplicity preached by the pastor is a purely personal one, and amounts to little more than what might be called moderation and good taste in the various departments of life; he defines it as a “state of mind,” and insists that it presents “no external characteristics.” Much that he says of the virtue of simplicity is very true and sensible, so far as it goes, but he states only half the argument; and when the other, the social side of the question, is overlooked, the doctrine of simplification of life is apt to become somewhat futile.

Look, for example, at the fashionable comments on Wagner’s book in the “Letters on the Simple Life,” reprinted from the Daily Graphic in 1905, where, in one case, we have a lady commended for the simplicity, because “she does not spend more than £150 a year on her clothes.” We have remembrance, too, of a delightful account which appeared in a London paper of a camping-out party which was to visit the Egyptian Desert last winter and to follow “the simple life” in picnics, shooting-parties, and shopping expeditions. The prospectus ran as follows:

“Each member of the party will have a separate double-roofed sleeping-tent, with an interior worked by Arabs in coloured linens. The floor will be spread with an Oriental carpet.  There will be a big dining-tent for all, and a drawing-room tent for the ladies. The camp will be near the Pyramids, and within easy reach of Cairo by tram. In this desert camp ‘the simple life’ will really be followed. Everybody will follow his own inclinations—going to picnics, or shooting expeditions, or bazaar-shopping under the charge of the dragoman. The advantage of going with a party is that the inclusive expenses only come to £7 a week.”

This is what comes of defining simplicity as “a state of mind, and as devoid of “external characteristics”!

“I cannot help wondering,” says Mr. A. C. Benson in his recent work, “From a College Window,”  “whether the people who talk about the simple life have any idea what it means.” But does Mr. Benson himself—does anyone whose outlook is from a college window—know what it means? When he argues that “the first requisite is a perfect sincerity of character,” and that “the essence of the really simple character is that a man should accept his environment and circle, and if he is born in the so-called world, he need not seek to fly from it,” and when he goes on to sketch the simple liver as a pleasant, comfortable, well-balanced person such as he himself has known “in every rank of life,” it is evident that he does not in the least perceive what the real simplicity means—the simplicity which has found its highest expression in the writings of Thoreau.

For it must be clearly understood that though, on the one hand, simplification of life does not imply a rigid hard-and-fast rule of conduct, as that everyone should renounce the life of towns and live in a hut in a forest (with all the other absurd misapprehensions into which Thoreau’s early critics used to fall), it cannot, on the other hand, be whittled down to the mere vacuous, amiable concept to which Mr. Benson would reduce it. There is a practical side, as well as a spiritual side, in the simple life; and it is ridiculous to pretend that members of a fashionable and luxurious “society” may be living simply, because, forsooth, their simplicity is “a state of mind.” It is quite true, as Charles Wagner points out, that a man who rides in his carriage may be naturally sincere, while a shoeless beggar may be “dreaming of idleness and pleasure”; it is true, but it is also irrelevant. A teetotaller may be dreaming of brandy and champagne, but that does not prove that it is as simple to drink strong beverages as to drink water. The simple life implies simple action no less than simple taste, and the practical moral view of the matter is not thus lightly to be set aside.

For there is, at many points, a very intimate connection between simplicity and humaneness; most of all, perhaps, with regard to the food that we eat and the clothes that we wear. Take the question of simplification in dress and note how vitally it may promote the well-being of both our human and sub-human fellow-creatures. Fashionably-dressed men and women too often carry on their persons products of much needlessly inflicted suffering, their victims including the sweated tailor and the over-worked seamstress, with a long train of sacrificed animals, from the silkworm to the whale. The fur fashion alone means the torture of millions of animals yearly. Politicians may talk of “one man one vote”; but, really, when we study the world of dress, a programme of “one man one skin” seems more important. As Keats says of the thoughtless and luxurious rich:

For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half ignorant, they turned an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.

So, too, with regard to the food question. It is a matter of the greatest concern to others—and thus, also, to himself—whether a man elect to live after the carnivorous or the frugivorous fashion—whether he ally himself to the beasts of prey or to the ranks of the social animals. Here and there, no doubt, a vegetarian may, in certain cases, be living less simply than a flesh-eater, but the exception does not vitiate the rule: a fleshless diet is more in accordance with the simple life than a diet of “scorched corpses.” As Thoreau puts it: “Having been my own butcher and scullion, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience. The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness, and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insufficient and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth.”

How puerile it is, then, in the face of these facts, to treat the principle of simplicity as if it meant no more than a cheerful, contended disposition, which accepts its own “environment,” even if it be born to “the so-called world,” and (say) three thousand a year! Simplification of life is something more genuine, more actual, than that. It is the deliberate abandonment of what is excessive and luxurious, with a view to one’s own conform, both of body and of mind—of body, because, as all experience shows, the happiest men are they who live simply; of mind, because to live otherwise than simply is to put a grievous burden upon others. “All men,” as Shelley says, “are called to participate in the community of Nature’s gifts. The man who has fewest bodily wants approaches nearest to the divine nature. Satisfy these wants at the cheapest rate, and expend the remaining energies of your nature in the attainment of virtue and knowledge.”

It is not surprising, perhaps, that, as the simple life itself is so entirely misunderstood by many who discourse of it, the character of Thoreau, a pioneer of simple living, should still be misconceived. He was a victim, according to Mr. Benson, of the fatal desire “to stimulate the curiosity of others.” “The most conspicuous instance of this in literature,” he says, “is the case of Thoreau;” and he asserts that “Thoreau was indolent rather than simple, and what spoilt his simplicity was that he was for ever hoping that he would be observed and admired. . . . He was for ever looking at himself in the glass, and describing to others the rugged, sun-browned, slovenly, solemn person that he saw there.” And so on.

Now this sort of criticism not only exhibits Mr. Benson as totally incapacitated by his academical—not to say archiepiscopal—“environment” for understanding the simple life, but convicts him of complete ignorance of the charm of Thoreau’s career. Is it believable that a man who was “for ever hoping to be observed and admired” should have taken a course such as Thoreau took, which cut him off from all possibility of recognition during his lifetime—that of spending a great portion of his life in solitary rambles, and entirely ignoring all the avenues which lead to what is known as “success”? Mr. Benson presumably imagines that the diaries in which Thoreau jotted down his thoughts were written with a view to publication, but this was not the case; indeed, as Mr. Sandborn has recently pointed out, “it was never Thoreau’s intent to print these Journals as they now appear, still less as they were partially published by his editor after 1876.” When Thoreau died in 1862, a practically unknown man, with only two of his books, “The Week” and “Walden,” published, nothing seemed more certain than that he had deprived himself of all likelihood of fame by his entire indifference to public opinion; and if it was his desire to stimulate the curiosity of his fellow-countrymen, he stultified himself completely by taking the utmost pains to secure the contrary result.

How far Mr. Benson is competent to discuss the question of simplification may be judged from his complaint that “it is almost true to say that the people who are most in love with simplicity are often the most complicated natures.” I should say it is not “almost,” but wholly true, and the reason is obvious. It is precisely because the spiritual needs of mankind are so complex that it is necessary to simplify our bodily needs, and therefore the most complex natures, such as Shelley’s and Thoreau’s, are those which have the strongest tendency to simplification. “Plain living” and “high thinking” of necessity go together. “Your physical wants,” says Shelley, “are few, whilst those of your mind and heart cannot be numbed or described, from their multitude and complication. To secure the gratification of the former, you have made yourselves the bondslaves of each other.” This is, of course, the very corner-stone of the whole principle of simplification; yet Mr. Benson has overlooked it.

After what we have seen of Mr. Benson’s insight into the simple life, it is delightful to find him deprecating anything in the nature of a “movement” towards such reform. “There is nothing which is more fatal to it,” he thinks, “than that people should meet to discuss the subject.” Well, I am not so sure about that. If Mr. Benson had taken the precaution of attending some discussion of the question, it might at least have saved him from adding this ill-advised chapter to his book.

Certainly the simple life is not only “a state of mind,” but a state of body also, which abstains, as far as may be, from all cruel customs and fashions which provide the superfluities and luxuries of one class at the cost of the suffering of another.

Henry S. Salt

The Humane Review, Vol. 7, October 1906