Walden Economy Rhetorical Analysis Essay

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life . . . and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

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Thoreau recalls the several places where he nearly settled before selecting Walden Pond, all of them estates on a rather large scale. He quotes the Roman philosopher Cato’s warning that it is best to consider buying a farm very carefully before signing the papers. He had been interested in the nearby Hollowell farm, despite the many improvements that needed to be made there, but, before a deed could be drawn, the owner’s wife unexpectedly decided she wanted to keep the farm. Consequently, Thoreau gave up his claim on the property. Even though he had been prepared to farm a large tract, Thoreau realizes that this outcome may have been for the best. Forced to simplify his life, he concludes that it is best “as long as possible” to “live free and uncommitted.” Thoreau takes to the woods, dreaming of an existence free of obligations and full of leisure. He proudly announces that he resides far from the post office and all the constraining social relationships the mail system represents. Ironically, this renunciation of legal deeds provides him with true ownership, paraphrasing a poet to the effect that “I am monarch of all I survey.”

Thoreau’s delight in his new building project at Walden is more than merely the pride of a first-time homeowner; it is a grandly philosophic achievement in his mind, a symbol of his conquest of being. When Thoreau first moves into his dwelling on Independence Day, it gives him a proud sense of being a god on Olympus, even though the house still lacks a chimney and plastering. He claims that a paradise fit for gods is available everywhere, if one can perceive it: “Olympus is but the outside of the earth every where.” Taking an optimistic view, he declares that his poorly insulated walls give his interior the benefit of fresh air on summer nights. He justifies its lack of carved ornament by declaring that it is better to carve “the very atmosphere” one thinks and feels in, in an artistry of the soul. It is for him an almost immaterial, heavenly house, “as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers.” He prefers to reside here, sitting on his own humble wooden chair, than in some distant corner of the universe, “behind the constellation of Cassiopeia’s Chair.” He is free from time as well as from matter, announcing grandiosely that time is a river in which he goes fishing. He does not view himself as the slave of time; rather he makes it seem as though he is choosing to participate in the flow of time whenever and however he chooses, like a god living in eternity. He concludes on a sermonizing note, urging all of us to sludge through our existence until we hit rock bottom and can gauge truth on what he terms our “Realometer,” our means of measuring the reality of things


The title of this chapter combines a practical topic of residence (“Where I Lived”) with what is probably the deepest philosophical topic of all, the meaning of life (“What I Lived For”). Thoreau thus reminds us again that he is neither practical do-it-yourself aficionado nor erudite philosopher, but a mixture of both at once, attending to matters of everyday existence and to questions of final meaning and purpose. This chapter pulls away from the bookkeeping lists and details about expenditures on nails and door hinges, and opens up onto the more transcendent vista of how it all matters, containing less how-to advice and much more philosophical meditation and grandiose universalizing assertion. It is here that we see the full influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson on Thoreau’s project. Emersonian self-reliance is not just a matter of supporting oneself financially (as many people believe) but a much loftier doctrine about the active role that every soul plays in its experience of reality. Reality for Emerson was not a set of objective facts in which we are plunked down, but rather an emanation of our minds and souls that create the world around ourselves every day.

Thoreau’s building of a house on Walden Pond is, for him, a miniature re-enactment of God’s creation of the world. He describes its placement in the cosmos, in a region viewed by the astronomers, just as God created a world within the void of space. He says outright that he resides in his home as if on Mount Olympus, home of the gods. He claims a divine freedom from the flow of time, describing himself as fishing in its river. Thoreau’s point in all this divine talk is not to inflate his own personality to godlike heights but rather to insist on everyone’s divine ability to create a world. Our capacity to choose reality is evident in his metaphor of the “Realometer,” a spin-off of the Nilometer, a device used to measure the depth of the river Nile. Thoreau urges us to wade through the muck that constitutes our everyday lives until we come to a firm place “which we can call Reality, and say, This is.” The stamp of existence we give to our vision of reality—“This is”—evokes God’s simple language in the creation story of Genesis: “Let there be. . . .” And the mere fact that Thoreau imagines that one can choose to call one thing reality and another thing not provides the spiritual freedom that was central to Emerson’s Transcendentalist thought. When we create and claim this reality, all the other “news” of the world shrinks immediately to insignificance, as Thoreau illustrates in his mocking parody of newspapers reporting a cow run over by the Western Railway. He opines that the last important bit of news to come out of England was about the revolution of 1649, almost two centuries earlier. The only current events that matter to the transcendent mind are itself and its place in the cosmos.


One of the many delightful pursuits in which Thoreau is able to indulge, having renounced a big job and a big mortgage, is reading. He has grand claims for the benefits of reading, which he compares, following ancient Egyptian or Hindu philosophers, to “raising the veil from the statue of divinity.” Whether or not Thoreau is ironic in such monumental reflections about books is open to debate, but it is certain that reading is one of his chief pastimes in the solitude of the woods, especially after the main construction work is done. During the busy days of homebuilding, he says he kept Homer’s Iliad on his table throughout the summer, but only glanced at it now and then. But now that he has moved in not just to his handmade shack, but into the full ownership of reality described in the preceding chapter, reading has a new importance. Thoreau praises the ability to read the ancient classics in the original Greek and Latin, disdaining the translations offered by the “modern cheap” press. Indeed he goes so far as to assert that Homer has never yet been published in English—at least not in any way that does justice to Homer’s achievement. Thoreau emphasizes the work of reading, just as he stresses the work of farming and home-owning; he compares the great reader to an athlete who has subjected himself to long training and regular exercise. He gives an almost mystical importance to the printed word. The grandeur of oratory does not impress him as much as the achievements of a written book. He says it is no wonder that Alexander the Great carried a copy of the Iliad around with him on his military campaigns.

Thoreau also urges us to read widely, gently mocking those who limit their reading to the Bible, and to read great things, not the popular entertainment books found in the library. Thoreau gradually extends his criticism of cheap reading to a criticism of the dominant culture of Concord, which deprives even the local gifted minds access to great thought. Despite the much-lauded progress of modern society in technology and transportation, he says real progress—that of the mind and soul—is being forgotten. He reproaches his townsmen for believing that the ancient Hebrews were the only people in the world to have had a Holy Scripture, ignoring the sacred writings of others, like the Hindus. Thoreau complains the townspeople spend more on any body ailment than they do on mental malnourishment; he calls out, like an angry prophet, for more public spending on education. He says, “New England can hire all the wise men in the world to come and teach her, and board them round the while, and not be provincial at all.” Thoreau implicitly blames the local class system for encouraging fine breeding in noblemen but neglecting the task of ennobling the broader population. He thus calls out for an aristocratic democracy: “[i]nstead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men.”

Take the Where I Lived, and What I Lived For Quick Quiz

For two years and two months Thoreau lived alone in the woods by Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he wrote the bulk of the book, though now he has left the woods and returned to civilization. Many people have asked him about his daily life in the woods, and this book is in part an attempt to answer those readers. He defends writing about himself and his use of the first person against the charge of egotism by saying that he is the person that he knows best, after all, and that he aims to give "a simple and sincere account of his own life."
Thoreau removes himself from society and chooses solitude at Walden Pond. At the same time, however, he presents his book as an explanation of his solitude for the readers in society. He sees his book as a way for him to communicate his ideas to others effectively.
What is the chief purpose of man? Thoreau asks. Most men live in despair because they have forgotten that they have a choice in how to conduct their lives. Instead, they follow the older generations, calling them wise. But it is not enough to make choices based on received wisdom, even if those choices have been practiced through history and written about by the ancients. Human lives are as various as nature. A man must be open to change and must himself figure out what is the right way for him to live.
Thoreau sees himself as addressing the highest and most basic question of human life. If man follows received wisdom, he forsakes himself and cuts himself off from the possibility of living a good life, at one with himself and spiritually fulfilled. Even the writing of the ancients is less important than a man's own internal compass.
Human advancements throughout time have not changed "the essential laws of man's existence." Thoreau designs a primitive life for himself in order to figure out what are the barest necessities a man needs to live, the elements without which no one has been able to live. He determines these necessities to be: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. His aim is to combine the toughness of primitive life with the intellectualness of civilization.
By paring his life down to the essentials, Thoreau seeks to free himself from the excesses of society. His lifestyle is a kind of experiment conducted on himself whose aim is to discover the nature of mankind's existence in general.
The luxuries and comforts to which men are so attached only hinder mankind. Being poor in outward riches is often a sign of being rich in inward riches. Thoreau calls his way of life "voluntary poverty" and suggests it is a good vantage point from which to observe human life. He seeks to solve the problems of how to live not only theoretically, like a professor, but practically as well. His advice on how to live, he says, is not directed to those who are strong and have mastered their lives, nor to those who are happy with the current state, but to those who are discontented and overworked, and also to those who are wealthy but poor in spirit.
Before coming to the woods, Thoreau spent time as a newspaper reporter, (though the editor never published his writing), a self-appointed weatherman, and an amateur herdsman and gardener of the town, before it became clear that his fellow townsmen did not appreciate his work. He tells a parable about an Indian who gets angry at a lawyer because the lawyer refuses to buy his woven baskets, and Thoreau notes that, like the Indian, he did not realize he had to sell work that other people wanted. Instead of adapting to the town, though, he chooses to go to the woods and work as he wants, calling it "a good place for business."
Thoreau tried all kinds of ways he might belong to society, but found that being alone at Walden would be the best place for him. The parable of the Indian basket-weaver represents the ways in which belonging to society dictates the kind of work a man must do and therefore limits him. Instead, Thoreau chooses solitude and self-reliance.
Clothing, Thoreau argues, is an embarrassingly excessive concern for most people. They worry more about having new, pristine clothes than they do about having a clean conscience. Thoreau urges that choice of clothing be led not by a taste for novelty or by the whims of fashion, which people adhere to do fanatically, but by utility and simplicity. Without clothes, a man's social rank would be rightfully indistinguishable. The clothing industry does not serve people's best interests but only makes corporations rich.
What are the differences between "the civilized man" and "the savage"? Thoreau asks. The civilized man conceives of institutions into which the individual is absorbed for the good of mankind. This trade-off, Thoreau maintains, is a great sacrifice, and an unnecessary one. The civilized man is morally and spiritually distracted, while the savage lives free of the threat of poverty. As far as shelter goes, civilization has created palaces but not noblemen to live in them. While the wealthy set the taste for the mass of people to chase after, the existence of the poor, who live in shanties, has been degraded. In reality, the pursuits of the civilized man are no worthier than that of the savages, so their dwellings should not be any different.
The best art, Thoreau asserts, is made out of man's desire to free himself from the constraints of civilization. Paradoxically, however, there is no room for art in civilized life because people are distracted by lesser pursuits and pursue false beauty. Before beauty can really be appreciated, the lives of ordinary men must be dismantled and brought to their most basic state, as the first settlers of Concord lived, making homes of holes in the ground until they were secure enough and had enough food to build houses. Society's habit of building luxurious dwellings is a symptom of spiritual deprivation.
Like the college system and other modern advancements, railroads and traveling in general, Thoreau believes, are a ridiculous waste of money and another symptom of an unhealthy way of life in which a person spends most of his life earning money so that he can enjoy only a small part of it. In addition, people seem to place more value on the speed of getting from one place to another than they do on the importance of what they do in either place.
Travel and other purported signs of society's "progress" are not only a practical waste of money but a spiritual problem; Thoreau adheres to the Transcendentalist idea that one must find meaning in the present moment rather than suffer through it in order to enjoy a later time.
In order to defray his expenses, Thoreau plants a bean-field of couple of acres and makes a modest gain. The next year he does even better. Comparing himself to the farmers of Concord, Thoreau believes he has done better than them financially, and all while maintaining his independence. Out of greed, farmers use the labor of animals, but it is a great folly, he says, because whereas the farmer wants the animals to work for him, he ends up working for the animals.
Men should not be judged by their architecture or material wealth, Thoreau believes, but by the richness of their abstract thought: not by the temples of the East but by the Bhagvat-Geeta. Nations obsess over making monuments to prolong their renown and satisfy their vanity, but Thoreau finds them vulgar.
The building of great monuments is an improper kind of work for man. Not only is it an offense to Thoreau's taste for simplicity, but it is also a vain pursuit that distracts from true spiritual striving.
Continuing with his record-keeping, Thoreau makes charts of all his purchases for household goods and food, detailing all that he ate and asserting that a man can eat very simply and retain his health. He adds up all his expenses, adds up all his earnings, and finds the balance to be a modest deficit, against which he has gained a house, a new way of life, and the contentment that comes along with them.
Thoreau's record-keeping is proof that his philosophy of self-reliance and simplicity, far from being merely abstract, can practically be lived, and furthermore, that it does not require one to deprive oneself. Thoreau emphasizes that he enjoys his life and lives well.
After many experiments in making bread, Thoreau finds that the best way is to use just meal and water, not even salt. Originally he used leavening but then discovered by accident that he could do without it, and he notes that Marcus Porcius Cato's ancient recipe for bread does not include it. He relishes making his own food and encourages his readers to do so.
Even in bread-making Thoreau finds an opportunity to figure it out for himself, and his recipe is the simplest possible one. He stresses individuality; he does not follow Marcus Porcius Cato's recipe but enjoys the fact that they independently discovered the same thing.
For furniture and household goods, Thoreau chooses to have only the basics, including a table, a desk, three chairs, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, and one spoon. He believes that it is a shame to have lots of belongings. Once he attended an auction of a man's effects, and he says it would have been better to have had "a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them," as in the Indian practice of casting off old possessions annually and burning them together in a public ritual and feast.
To have such few belongings is as much as sign of the simplicity of Thoreau's way of life as it is a sign of his solitude. Living unencumbered by material possessions is a spiritual matter, so such a bonfire would be purifying to the spirit and a cause for communal celebration.
Thoreau finds that he can meet all his expenses by working six weeks out of the year, leaving the rest of his time for study. He tried teaching and trade, even contemplated picking huckleberries, but found that day labor was the best work because it left him freest. Most of all he values his freedom and doesn't desire more money because of the sacrifice in time it would entail. Labor should not be loved for its own sake, Thoreau argues. Supporting oneself does not have to be a hardship, and all of life can be a pleasure. At the same time, it does not suffice merely to follow his example; the individual must find his own way in the world, and it is best to go alone.
Some townsmen have accused Thoreau

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