Tuesday, January 01, 2008

1840s Connection I Intended to Make

As I wrote on Sunday, I noticed a connection between the 1840s writings on Henry David Thoreau in Walden and Karl Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

However, as I searched back through Thoreau's first chapter, I failed to find what I thought that I remembered. When I found some link in the writings, I wrote about it, and attributed the mismatch to faulty memory. I finally found the intended paragraphs yesterday afternoon.

Thoreau wrote:
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluous course labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day to day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine (pp. 6-7).
Marx wrote:
In the first place, the raising of wages gives rise to overwork among the workers. The more they wish to earn, the more must they sacrifice their time and carry out slave-labor, in the service of avarice completely losing all their freedom, thereby they shorten their lives (p. 22, emphasis original).
If you have never read Walden, I recommend it with the highest praise that I can give. The first chapter, titled Economy, and the final conclusions contain some of the most accurate perceptions of the human condition ever observed.

A lot of people have critiqued "keeping up with the Jonses" and other problems of avarice. Yet Thoreau's words still ring true a century and a half later. Why do we live to work when we should work only to live? Read Walden, and you likely will never think about this question the same again.
This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the lift of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once (p. 57).

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