Eco-Marxist Analysis of “Economy”

Thoreau’s main arguments in “Economy” are based on self-reliance yet he comes from a place of power within society in which he is able to use the resources of his upbringing to obtain the things he represents as his own hard work. He identifies the four necessities of life as “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” and he goes on to obtain these things through the resources that his friends and family are able to provide for him (Thoreau 11). His entire argument about how living off the land and being reliant on yourself is therefore only an example of his pretentiousness, as he does not even do the things he suggests.

As he comes from a somewhat well off family, he idealizes the ability to live in nature, because he does not have to experience the hardships of living in poverty. On top of this he is a single man. He mentions that people had questioned him about his ability to live as he described by asking about “how many poor children [he] maintained” yet he writes this off as being unimportant (Thoreau 5). His complete lack of understanding that not everyone has the resources and ability to just pick of and take off into the woods undermines all of his arguments. That is simply unattainable for most people, as they have families to provide for and lack even the initial resources Thoreau had to make it into the woods in the first place. He states that “[it] is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is in the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise,” which is just another instance of his not understanding that not everyone comes from a similar social background and that most of the people of his time did not have the family and friends that he did to borrow the necessary resources from (Thoreau 31).

Thoreau presents these ideas as though they are attainable to the mass, but his arguments fall flat when his social standing is taken into consideration.


Thoreau, Henry D. Walden, Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch./Art: Walden; Walking p5-70, 260-287. Pub. WW Norton 2008



2 responses to this post.

  1. I couldnt agree more with you on this. Thoreau has special circumstances that allow him to do this and its not feasible for most. My other problem with the concepts of walden is that he portrays this self reliance as the ideal way to live, yet he only does walden as an experiment, not a lifestyle, because he says at the very beginning that by the time he publishes this he is living among civilization again. So hes kind of a hypocrite.

  2. Posted by teagueoreagan on October 13, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Let me play devil’s advocate here and say that Thoreau was clearly attempting to provide a model example (and not necessarily an ideal one) to illuminate what he was talking about. Whether one agrees with the text or not, the fact that he actually made the effort to live the philosophy that he is trying to espouse lends him infinitely more credibility than if he had remained “quietly desperate” atop his fairly privileged position in society. While he might seem self-righteous or pretentious in his arguments (especially that bit about not utilizing his ample sitting around time to help those in need in light of his high-minded idealism) I do not believe that he ever intended anyone to replicate the way of living he carved out but rather the ideology. As an experiment, it was quite a success as he did not fail epically and starve to death and managed to sustain himself and live in a manner approaching what he was suggesting.. However, I feel it is important to point out that there are some select few within a social subgroup (the homeless) that consciously embrace this philosophy of not resigning themselves to being cogs in the machine so they can gain the benefits the position provides, preferring to collect the resources they need from what is immediately available (the petty cash that nearly everyone possesses). So, yes, I’m calling Thoreau a bum. And while it is a sustainable lifestyle it is not a particularly comfortable one. Although he would likely never admit it, I would be willing to wager he missed the simple luxuries that make life worth living like coffee and the written word and would not have been able to do without them forever. Further, humans, much like all primates, are communal creatures that require the stimulation, edification, and sense of accomplishment provided them by a collective body for without such stimulation one would eventually create an outlet that might be considered psychologically divergent (Wilson from Cast Away for example). So while Thoreau says that the way he was living was sustainable, it truly was not because he negated a great many necessities (like sanity) in his short list of food, shelter, food, and clothing.

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