This paper is concerned with the way in which competition is described and meditated on in Henry Thoreau’s ‘Walden.’ The book contains a sustained meditation on living a life close to nature and is often seen as a masterpiece of pioneer and secessionist literature. Throughout, Thoreau makes several claims about the nature of modern society in comparison to life as it is lived in the woods. Several of these claims can appear to be contradictory, however. It is the thesis of this paper that ‘Walden’ presents a critique of competition as it exist in a capitalist economy, however that such a critique presents a view of nature which is fundamentally mediated by those conditions. I find it hard to agree with much Thoreau’s statements. This is not because they exactly wrong, but rather because they do not sufficiently solve the problem of the relation between nature and society. This thesis will be extrapolated by reading closely passages of the text.
In the chapter ‘Where I lived and what I Lived for’ Thoreau presents a criticism of a life of economic competition, however he does so from the perspective of the singular and entitled individual. The chapter begins with descriptions of the author fantasising about buying various farms close to him, despite of the fact the he is living in relative poverty. This sense of speculation is accompanied by a view point which puts him, a singular, thinking person at the centre of the universe:
‘In imagination I have bought all of the farms that I know in succession, for all were to be bought, and I knew their price…This experience entitled me to be regarded as a sort of real-estate broker by my friends. Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly.’ (Thoreau, 1995. 62.)
The standpoint which Thoreau adopts here is already one of ownership and throughout the chapter he uses strikingly legalistic terms to describe his purportedly a-social relationship to the nature around him: “I am the monarch of all I survey. My right there is one to dispute.” (ibid. 63.)
Later in the chapter, Thoreau makes a specific criticism of economic life and social conditions. He makes the criticism from a standpoint of disagreement with what those conditions do to a person, and with how they distort what that person’s true concerns should be:
‘Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.’ (ibid. 69)
Here Thoreau does not exactly rule out a state of competition in nature, but suggest that competition within capitalist economies merely serves to complicate a person’s concerns and abstracts away from their true needs. This criticism culminates in the remark: ‘We do not ride the railroad, it rides us.’ (ibid. 70)
The chapter entitled ‘Brute Neighbours’ continues this mediation. Thoreau begins by describing fishing trips with a companion and moves on to a meditation of how, if one is not hunting animals, then it is possible to have peaceful relationship with them. He presents this in an image which is striking in its harmony: ‘You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.’ (ibid. 171) Once again, Thoreau positions his description from the perspective of one who is already in someway sovereign over the environment which he is describing. He goes on to describe a struggle between ants. He claims that this is the only battle that he has ever witnessed, and proceeds to describe from he sees from an intensely anthropomorphic standpoint:
‘There came along a single red ant on the hill-side of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had despatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle….Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus.’ (ibid.)
Thoreau describes a state of competition and violence in nature, and claims that it is a natural occurrence. However he is only able to do this from perspective of one who is steeped in western culture and history and is able to make references to Homer in his description. It may be argued that the ‘battle’ which the author relates proves the universality of works like ‘The Iliad’, however it is much more likely that, against his intention, Thoreau is projecting his cultural standpoint onto the nature around him.
Thoreau states in the conclusion to ‘Walden’ that ‘the universe is wider than our view of it.’ (ibid. 238) He formulates a philosophy of being in tune with nature to such an extent that one is able to simplify one’s view of the universe accordingly and a person will see that..’in proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.’ (ibid. 241.) This thought moves to statement of radical individualism which is once again predicated on the capacity of a person to know themselves and to know nature: ‘Let everyone mind his own business, and endeavour to be what he was made. (ibid.)
A person is required to know themselves and to know nature and to therefore be able to live harmoniously with own affairs and not worry about the possibilities or potential lacks of either their historical position or their view of the world. The book itself ends with a metaphor which encapsulates Thoreau’s view of the potential for society to be re-subsumed under nature: ‘Who knows what beautiful and winged life…may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!’ (Ibid. 247)
In conclusion, this paper has argued that within ‘Walden,’ Thoreau presents a view of nature which sees competition as inherent to it in some degree but which encourages humans, those who are capable of being the sovereign and lord of nature, to distance themselves from such competition. It has shown that this raises a question about how conceptions of nature are mediated by social conditions, and that this is a question which the book is unable to answer.
- Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: Or Life in the Woods. London: Dover Publications, 1995.