More Than Money
Issue #42
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More Than Money Magazine

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“Spending Our Lives: Thoreau's View of Economy as Philosophy”
– Richard Higgins

There are signs everywhere in America— signs for near and distant places, roadwork, stores and sales. But in some landscapes, invisible signs also float just beyond our normal range of vision.They bear messages about the past; they prompt thoughts of human lives and special moments that transpired there. Concord, Massachusetts, our new home, is such a place.

Last summer, we moved to a handsome little office park surrounded by trees. And, yes, we put out a new sign: The More Than Money Institute. We didn’t notice them much at first, but now those invisible reminders keep coming into view.

They remind us, for one, of Henry David Thoreau, who went to the woods nearby to front “the essential facts of life,” to live more sturdily and deeply. Thoreau urged people to think less of spending their money and more of how they spend their time. After our move, we recognized that our mission draws from a similar well of hope. This institute’s work is to help people explore their relationship with money in hopes that they can live more deliberately, more in concert with their personal beliefs and values.

As those signs suggest, it was here in Concord that many of the ideals and values we embrace were lifted up and advocated for the first time in American society. Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and others, including Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, offered new ideas that encouraged Americans to act on their highest values. It is work we believe is still worth doing today.

“Let us consider the way we spend our days.” Thoreau urges this in “Life Without Principle,” the essay that he prepared for publication shortly before he died in 1862. This is also the central question in his masterpiece, Walden , which was published in 1854. That is not surprising. Thoreau based “Life Without Principle” on his lecture, “What Shall It Profit?” which he first gave in 1854 and which drew from Walden’s insights. Thoreau’s interest in how we spend our time lay behind his frequent comments about buying and spending. Will making money and stocking goods keep us from more important business? What we will do with the gift of this day?

Thoreau moved to Walden in 1845. His idea for his experiment arose after he tried moving to Staten Island in 1843 to become a New York writer. Homesick, Thoreau quickly returned to Concord and began talking about moving to the woods to find out who he was and what this life is about. After Emerson bought 11 acres around Walden Pond in 1844, another friend urged him to try his experiment there. Thoreau did.

He built his $28 house in March and moved in on Independence Day. This didn’t help Thoreau’s reputation; he was already seen as being unwilling or unable to turn his Harvard diploma into a paycheck. But Thoreau’s account of his stay has made Walden the world’s most famous small lake, one visited by pilgrims and videotaped by tourists from all over the world. Those searchers and seekers are part of the invisible signs that announce this landscape as special.

Thoreau saw money as a kind of token in a system of ethical beliefs that may remain unspoken. He wanted people to examine those beliefs. In Walden, economy is a metaphor for a branch of lived morality, the social expression of a philosophy. That particular “economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy,” he complained, “is not even sincerely professed in our colleges.” (That sentence, by the way, appears in Walden ’s first and longest chapter, “Economy.”)

Thoreau didn’t simply preach about money, as his essay now known as “Civil Disobedience” attests. It argues that citizens have the duty, not just the right, to obey their conscience instead of an immoral law. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” Thoreau said of legalized slavery, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.” This 1846 essay influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

We may forget that what landed Thoreau in jail himself and led to the composition of the essay was a matter of money. Thoreau would not pay a special tax officials levied. He feared the money would help finance a war against Mexico, which could open new U.S. territories to which slavery might be spread. To the ridicule of his neighbors, Thoreau refused, on principle, to pay for it.

Thoreau sometimes railed judgmentally against the social consequences of money, such as those of the slave trade, the California Gold Rush, the degradation of forests for profit. “That so many are ready to live by luck ... without contributing any value to society,” he wrote of the Gold Rush, was a national disgrace. “I know of no more startling development of the immorality of trade, and all the common modes of getting a living.”

He could also convey his indignation with humor. “If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer,” he wrote. “But if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.” But what really elicited Thoreau’s passion and eloquence were the inner, personal consequences of our buying and spending. It is this part of his legacy that inspires us at More Than Money especially. Thoreau denounced not only the enslavement of others but also our tendency to enslave ourselves. He lifted up the opportunities for self development that are lost when we work long hours to obtain money in order to buy things that we have only been deluded into thinking we need.

We often fail to see, he wrote, that the true cost of something is expressed not only in dollars but in time surrendered to obtain it. “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it,” he wrote. When we do anything, we make a loan of our life energy that will never be repaid. This drove Thoreau to make sure that any such expenditure was worth its reward in life experience.

Upon examination, he often decided that it was not.

Thoreau plays with this idea in one of Walden ’s more memorable and funny images, about the unforeseen consequences of inheritance. He surveys the landscape, imagining which Concord farms he would buy. Then he decides it would be better if he bought none.

He has seen neighbors “whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms.” Why? Because “houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools are more easily acquired than got rid of,” he writes. Thoreau conjures the image of a farmer smothered under his load and “creeping down the road of life,” pushing before him a huge barn with stables that can’t ever be cleansed— and “100 acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot” to boot. Those excluded from such property, he adds, “find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.”

Thoreau also applies this idea in his account of hiking from Concord to Fitchburg. He imagines a friend who wonders why Thoreau did not earn money and take the train, enabling him to “see the country” along the way. Thoreau says he is wiser than that.

“I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages.... Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night. You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time to-morrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working [in Concord] the greater part of the day.” Thoreau figures that if the railroad reached around the globe he would always keep ahead of his friend—and see more country into the bargain.

Thoreau strikes some people as a dour moralist. It’s true that that he questioned or opposed many social conventions. But he writes of his life at Walden less as a negative abstention from the world than as a positive emergence into life’s interior abundance.

Hope and faith in human possibility pervade his thought, a Thoreau scholar said recently at the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, Massachusetts. “His words are not just against something,” said Philip Cafaro. “They are for something as well: for personal commitment, for the goodness of life, for our seeking to ‘solve’ life’s problems ‘practically’ where we can.”

Take Thoreau’s exhortations against luxury and in favor of simplicity. He wrote that “most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

Such statements may sound moralistic, said Cafaro, who is a philosophy professor at Colorado State University and author of Thoreau’s Living Ethics , “but the reason for his indifference to wealth is that not being in thrall to material possessions freed Thoreau to live out his ideals. He’s telling us that material simplicity opens up possibilities for living a truly rich life.”

Thoreau’s plea for a moral economy in America was a cautionary note on the eve of the gilded age of robber barons. As Leonard Neufeldt wrote in his 1989 book about Thoreau’s economic views [see box on resources], the Concordians lost that battle decisively. By the turn of the century, Neufeldt said, Thoreau’s appeal for a system of valuation different from the gold standard enjoyed little currency.

Maybe it is because Thoreau’s views of money were not widely adopted that we are heartened by those invisible reminders we see here. And the vision of economic life Thoreau and other Concord writers proposed encourages others.

This past October, a conference in Concord celebrated the legacy of the Concord School of Philosophy—120 years after Bronson Alcott founded the short-lived school.

“Preoccupation with the means of living has for too long postponed most Americans’ consideration of life’s ultimate values,” said Stuart Weeks, director of the Center for American Studies, the group that planned the conference.

But Weeks disputed that the war is lost and that America is no more than a “coarse, Mammon-minded country.” Recalling the Concord philosophers, Weeks said that Americans are “still passionately dreamful and prophetic, given to spiritual rebellions”—and that we may yet remember “the nobler half of our national memories.”

On the other hand, Thoreau’s views of money are not without their shortcomings. In “Civil Disobedience,” which is both animated and constrained by Thoreau’s righteous anger, he takes an inflexible stance. “The rich man is always sold to the institution which makes him rich,” he states. He then pronounces, “absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue.” Waxing to his theme, Thoreau concludes, “the best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor.”

Thoreau’s view here strikes us as wrong. More Than Money urges people to think critically about the role of money in their lives. We hope they question the “always” and “absolutely” statements we are all tempted to make about money. Wealth is a neutral tool. It can tempt us away from our better selves. But we know that wealth does not have to do that. And we know that it can be and is used by people and organizations to advance human freedom.

The choice of whether or not it is, is up to us. It is on the subject of choice that Thoreau again inspires.

“It appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. They honestly think there is no choice left,” he writes in Walden. In fact, he concludes, “It is never too late to give up our prejudices. There are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one center. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.” ■

—Richard Higgins

Resources Below are three books and a DVD with which to learn more about Thoreau’s views of money, work and ethics, and to gain a better sense of his ideas.

Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue , by Philip Cafaro (University of Georgia Press, 2005). An account of Thoreau's ethical philosophy, in particular the branch of ethics centered on the moral development of individuals and society.

Life With Principle ,” a new DVD produced by the Thoreau Society. Aimed at high school classrooms, this multimedia kaleidoscope brings Thoreau’s ethics and ideas to life through drama, dilemmas, interviews and discussions. Intended to stimulate discussion of the choices young people face. For more information, visit .

Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism , by David Robinson (Cornell University Press, 2004). Noted scholar and author Robert D. Richardson calls Robinson’s intellectual biography “the best, most thoughtful, most carefully worked out account of Thoreau’s major ideas that I know.”

The Economist: Henry Thoreau and Enterprise , by Leonard Neufeldt (Oxford University Press, 1989). A book that explores in depth Thoreau’s relation to the economic discourse of his time, especially the economic transformations then occurring in antebellum New England.

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