Henry David Thoreau’s Views and Responses over Industrialism

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Henry David Thoreau made the people of his nation aware of increased consumerism more than 150 years earlier. He considered that individuals must balance their intake with their requirements and must not follow the useless stuff because it would be a strain on their pockets.

He forecast the impact of widespread consumerism during his lifetime in the mid-19th decade. Consumerism went into being in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a consequence of the agricultural revolution.

There was plenty of hype. Thoreau considered that growing commercialism and consumerism would bring our pleasure and make the globe more materialistic. The equilibrium between purchase and consumption should be established. He took the lecture of simplifying stuff in order that individuals did not fit into the hype of over-commercialism and consummation during the mid-19th decade. He was clearly alerted.

Thoreau’s own life was a leading example of anti-commercialism and consumerism. He was greatly inspired by Socrates especially with this quote “the examined life is not worth living,” (Socrates)[1], he wanted his readers and ordinary people to adopt this quote of Socrates as a principle of their lives.

Thoreau’s emphasis on the appropriate usage of things justifies his views on consumerism and rampant commercialism of the mid-19th century. His approach was clear; he wanted to live an economic life with the proper utilization of sources that were available to him.

He was firm in his stance that he wouldn’t go with the wind of consumerism, he didn’t want to be the part of the system during that era as according to him the sole purpose of commercialism and consumerism was to make the profit by exploiting the resources. Thoreau opposed this system and made clear in his writings that this system was by no means in the welfare of the common people.

When he threw light on anti-consumerism, he was favoring common people rights as he wanted less burden on the pocket of American people. He could foresee the things that are why he highlighted the damaging results of consumerism and commercialism in the years to come and even in the century to follow. His renowned book Walden speaks volume about consumerism and its harmful effects on society.

In a way, he gave no value to the dollar; instead, he deemed it unnecessary for man. In fact, he was in favor of humanity. He explained that property is a hurdle in spirituality, he was of the view that property and possessions make people poor from inside. As a result of his firm belief in anti-consumerism and commercialism, he didn’t accept any job as a full-time employee.

According to him, full-time employment would result in consuming more which is an unnecessary element of human life. He cut his wants greatly. Therefore, he was able to claim that six weeks of labor would be enough for the whole year of living, it was indeed a considerable claim. He said, happiness lies in demanding less, the more demand and will bring more troubles and hassles to life, not only he preached this, he practiced this as well. The earth’s resources were exploited to make profits, which was so unfortunate.

A particular group or class of people made natural resources like trees, minerals and water commodities, the idea behind that was to make money. These natural resources are made for human and no one should be able to grab them to earn money, he deemed it as the robbery in that era of consumerism and commercialism.

Thoreau wrote an essay about slavery in Massachusetts after the speech that he delivered at an anti-slavery rally after the controversial decision of Fugitive Slave Act- refers to sending free slaves that were living in the north for slavery purpose in the south. He continually expressed in his essay anti-slavery views as lethal for America’s democracy and freedom. According to him, slavery was against the fundamental rights of the human.

Slaves were not allowed any freedom which was an irony because everyone was talking about democracy but the democratic values were not visible in the society as a result of slavery. Before the civil war, the demand for slaves increased as they were required to work in different industries during that time. In 1853, various buyers purchased members of families differently so that they never see each other again in their lives, which was so tragic.

Thoreau made valid points on anti-slavery and also exposed the hypocrisy of those people who are apparently against enslaving people, but in reality, they can’t see their actions which were contradictory to their views. He was a firm believer of individual’s freedom, through his writings he awakened people and conveyed to them the significance of a free soul.

Thoreau was a powerful opponent of slavery. Once he resolutely refused to pay the poll taxes as according to him as it was exploitation and means of enslaving people. His refusal to the local tax collector took him behind bars for one night, but he didn’t compromise his rules.

Thoreau’s writing about anti-slavery had a historical background as during those days slavery was a more significant issue and many prominent figures of that society were not ready to change their opinion on slavery. Thoreau, being a good personality, expressed his anti-slavery views as an eye-opener for many people. Also, he was against the Mexican-American war that was fought between 1846-1848 as a result of American armed intervention in Mexico.

In his writing, he explicitly defined hatred as an issue of society; he termed it as a disease that was spreading, and its roots were strengthening. He further mentioned that hatred was separating people of the United States from each other which was an alarming thing. He also criticized people who were following the materialistic approach of the time. He wanted masses to open their eyes and realize the challenges that were faced by the society during that time. Many Americans were viewing the world, not from their own eyes. Thoreau had a foresightedness which enabled him to point out such issues.

Reform and Reformers was the essay that Thoreau wrote, but it was not publicized during his life. He believed that reformers such as communists, religious reformers, and free love-oriented people were not entirely clear in their mind about what they were propagating at the time. According to him, such reformers should not do lip service only instead they should practically demonstrate their ideology through their actions[1].

He also endorsed the concept of self-reform. Therefore, he gave recommendations to all such reformers to start reforming themselves first and then think about changing society. In this regard, he gave the message to common people of America that instead of following any reformer, improve yourself first. Actions should describe the personality of an individual. Starting from yourself is the real reform which collectively can bring change in the society and the behavior of people.

The community during the mid-19th century was suffering from many diseases, and it needed cure at large. Therefore, everyone was responsible for his deeds and responsibility lies on everyone’s shoulder to analyze the things from their perspective in a realistic manner so that the country could see the real reforms.


[1] Kuhn, Bernhard. Autobiography and natural science in the age of Romanticism: Rousseau, Goethe, Thoreau. Routledge, 2016. https://www.amazon.com/Autobiography-Natural-Science-Age-Romanticism/dp/0754661660

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