On ‘Quiet Lives of Desperation’

Our world is a vast wonderland of sights and experiences, but the majority of men will live, and die in it, while experiencing but a modicum of what it has to offer. Most spend their lives either struggling from day to day, or preparing for the future and old age in particular, but few truly venture outside of what they have been taught, and believe is the only way to live. Unfortunately for most, this way is limited to working and striving for financial and material security that is never achieved, leaving little opportunity for pleasure, simply because it is considered to be the “right” mode of living. As a result, the majority of men do “lead lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau, ch 1 “Economy”) because excessive labor divests them of the ability to enjoy  life, while leaving them not only still financially, but also socially, spiritually, and emotionally impoverished.

They have been taught, since the earliest of times, that one must have certain things in order to be fulfilled and happy. The most important of these is to own a home and/or parcel of land. They learn that without land ownership and roots, they have and are nothing, but Thoreau explains these “men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost” (Thoreau). Men waste their youth, the time when their energy is high and their wonder great and new, for something that is ultimately unnecessary. There are many men that are “portionless” (Thoreau) who are nevertheless alive and potentially even more well than landowners. According to Thoreau “the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day, he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men, his labors would be depreciated in the market” (Thoreau, 983) because we scarcely have the time and energy to manage the square footage of ourselves, much less a huge tract of earth.

So much of their time and energies must be devoted solely to laboring and earning a living, that they are not even able to afford to take the time for peer companionship because if they did, the fruits of their labor would be lost or undermined by even the slightest amount of time taken for such leisure. A home and land are things that require constant attention or they easily fall into disrepair. The lack of human interaction deprives them of much of the joy and richness of life because by nature, man is a social and pleasure driven animal.  It is for this reason that Thoreau states “most men . . . are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (Thoreau, 983). The best and most important things in life are free, but only if those living are free from unnecessary encumbrance, in order to experience them. These include companionship and love, nature, art, literature, and all other manner of wonder in the world. These are lost in the time a man spends over invalid concern for material wealth and the grueling work that is required to, but seldom, achieves it and “he has not time to be anything but a machine” (Thoreau, 983). What he means is that all of one’s life is ultimately consumed in the pursuit of land and wealth that rob him of a happy and fulfilling life.

Indeed, not only are most men’s lives consumed in this futile and extraneous material pursuit, but even the time required for the simple pleasure of sitting down to read a book must be pilfered from one’s duties and responsibilities. Thoreau exposes this rather bluntly, when he says he has “no doubt that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all of the meals that you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour” (Thoreau). In other words, he sees that the mass of men work most every waking moment of their lives, only to drown in debt for such basics as food, clothing and shelter. They waste their youth and health, doing nothing more than earning money to pay the debts of yesterday, while the amounts owed are ever increasing. The only possible result of this can be desperation, because in order to override the needs of the mind, heart, and soul, in the service of material gain, one must resign oneself to not really living at all. Thoreau denounces this “resignation [as] confirmed desperation” (Thoreau) and goes on to say that “it is characteristic of wisdom not to desperate things” (Thoreau). He means that although most men are aware that their mode of living does not bring fulfillment, they have accepted it as their only option because convention says they ought, and having done so creates an inner longing so great, that it morphs into despondency and that is simply foolish.

In reality, men need very little to survive and yet, the whole of their lives are devoted to little or nothing more than survival. Yet deep within themselves, they are painfully aware that their lives are devoid of that which is truly important to a good and happy life. So they will spend it locked in silent inner turmoil, always struggling against the edict to strive for wealth they will never attain, in only the smallest and most insignificant of ways, but always losing the fight and ultimately dying without ever having really lived.




Thoreau, Henry David (1854) “Walden” Ticknor and Fields: Boston

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