Thoreau’s Views on Consumerism, Slavery, Freedom and War
Henry David Thoreau more than 150 years ago talked about consumerism an issue we are currently facing when it comes to environmental conservation and meeting the human needs. Thoreau consumerism was of the view that people needed to align their needs and thus should pick out just was necessary for them. Thoreau pointed out that an increase in consumerism resulted in picking out unnecessary things that resulted in a burden to their pocked. Thoreau had predicted the impact of consumerism which a lot of it came to pass at the beginning of the 19th century when industrialization begun. He had warned that an increase in consumerism was likely to result in unhappiness as people would become more materialistic. This paper will evaluate Thoreau’s validity on the argument on commercialization and consumerism and his views on slaver, war as well as individual freedom.
His approach on wants and needs was quite clear as he wanted to live a life where he practiced the proper utilization of resources that were available to him. Thoreau was firm in his views and constantly stated that people were being carried by the wind of consumerism. His arguments favored common American people as he did not want a burden on the pockets of Americans due to increase in prices of food as a result of consumerism. In his writing, he argued that property ownership was a hurdle to spirituality which meant that possessions as well as property made people poor from the inside (Lytle, pg. 77-89). Thoreau believed full time employment was also likely to lead to an increase in consumerism this led to him rejecting full time employment. By reducing his wants, Thoreau stated that six weeks of labor was enough for a whole year living. In order for one to attain genuine happiness, then demanding less was key as more consumerism would demand a lot of hassle. Humans were exploiting the earth’s resources in order to make profits including the trees, minerals as well as water commodities causing a strain on earth resources. This can still be seen even today as an increase in consumerism contributes to degradation of earth resources such as deforestation which contributes to global warming.
On slavery, Thoreau wrote a speech in Massachusetts that he delivered in a rally that was on anti-slavery after the passing of the controversial Fugitive Slave Act. The act that required the free slaves from the north to be taken back to their owners in the south. Thoreau constantly expressed his ant-slavery sentiments as he saw it was hypocritical on both the democracy and freedom of Americans. Slavery was against the human rights and the fact that slaves could not be allowed any freedom was ironical because every single American was trying to champion for freedom and democracy but these democratic values were not present in the society because of slavery. Before the civil war, the slaves had to work in the different industries for prolonged periods in very inhumane conditions. In 1853, most slave families were separated from each other as buyers purchased them differently so that they could never see each other. Thoreau poked holes on this form of hypocrisy as Americas values were those against enslavement yet the actions were totally different to what they preached (Glick, pg. 193-204).
Thoreau was a believer of individual freedom and in his writing he was able to awaken people’s thoughts and also portrayed significance of one having a free soul. Thoreau refused to pay poll taxes as he thought this was exploitation of the slaves and his refusal resulted in his arrest but him spending nights behind bars did not make him compromise his stands on various societal issues. His writings had impact and he was a threat to a few people who were not ready for the conversation on why slave ownership was wrong. On individual freedom, Thoreau’s argument is well documented in his book Where I Lived for where he states how he think the men ought to live. According to his philosophies, the physical conditions of life are fundamentally and also inevitably tied to an individual’s spiritual life. The cabin appearance, its furniture, size and more so its location on the shoreline of the pool all add to his mental arousal (Thoreau, p.46).
On war, Thoreau was against the American- Mexico war of 1846. To Thoreau this was a ploy by the southerners to expand their slavery to the south west. In protest to slavery and not paying taxes he was jailed an act he considered as civil disobedience. It was in this period that he concluded being against slavery and war was simply not enough and thus the need for civil disobedience. Henry David in his essay titled, Civil Disobedience, advances his belief that the best government is the one that rules least. A government allows the citizens to conduct themselves without interfering or imposing its will on them. He continues to narrate his belief that most governments are the tool to accomplish people’s wishes. Henry believed that a government that does not meet the needs and aspirations of the citizens has no reason to continue existing as it would have failed in meeting its basic role. He talks of the government’s existence as a condition for the protection of individual rights. As he would later learn from experience, taking up the role of ensuring the government meets the needs of the citizens and choosing not to live by the set government involves consequences. The price of non-conformity to the government can be very heavy on those deemed deviant to it.
Thoreau acknowledges that nonconformity to government set regulations that may be unjust comes at a price. If a citizen decides that because the government does not give him the services he needs, then it is the role of that citizen to avoid at all costs no to pay taxes to the same government. Governments are likely to use your taxes to execute what your belief is unjust, and that makes you part of the system. He encouraged people to boycott paying taxes in such cases and f they were imprisoned, it would be a worthy course. He suggested that prison would be the best residence of any man within unjust society (Thoreau, pg. 2).
Thoreau outlines that you cannot achieve justice if people think they can achieve it passively through voting. He outlines practicing just like the convenient way of having a just society. People should consider their obligation not to support the execution of unjust acts or give it any practical support. In his essay, Thoreau narrates that the minority can be agents of unjust by conforming to the demands of the majority. He refused to pay the poll tax to the government he considered corrupt this led to his arrest and imprisonment for a day (Thoreau, pg. 3). After spending a day in prison, someone paying for him the tax and he was set free. He narrates of the ordeal in prison and the trouble he had to go through just because he refused to conform to the unjust system. They serve prisoners with breakfast through a hole in the prison door in small pans made from tins. The pans could only hold the brown bread, a piece of chocolate and an iron spoon given to them. He even narrates the hard life in prison where a comrade seized his vessels as he was returning bread remains. The comrade advised to keep the bread for lunch or dinner and even informed him that he has to work in a hay field within the neighborhood.
In conclusion, Thoreau was a philosopher wo was too brave during his time. he addressed issues such as slavery, freedom and war topics that most philosophers would not because of fear of government actions including jail time which he served. It is his philosophies that may have helped the black people fight for their freedom and rise up in protest against slavery. Thoreau did not rule out violence in fighting for one’s freedom. He defended John Browns attack to the federal arsenal at Harper Ferry in Virginia an attempt to spark slave revolution. Thoreau’s views on consumerism are still applicable today and we should probably borrow a few of his ideals.
Glick, Wendell P. “Thoreau and the” Herald of Freedom”.” New England Quarterly (1949): 193-204.
Lytle, George W. “Just Say No to Consumerism: The Continuing Relevance of Henry David Thoreau.” Hwa Kang Journal of English Language & Literature 2 (1996): 77-89.
Thoreau, Henry. Where I lived, and what I lived for. Vol. 37. Penguin UK, 2005.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Resistance to civil government.” Revista Filosofía UIS 15.1 (2017).
Thoreau, Henry David. Collected essays and poems. Vol. 124. Library of America, 2001.