When I read that important philosophical work, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, I find myself confronted by the details of cabin construction and hoeing beans. Expenses are carefully reported: $28.12 ½ for the cabin, plus Thoreau’s labor. As he says, “I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man.”
He needs these strict habits because he desires to be free. He explains that “the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” He reduces his necessities to the minimum, so that he needs to exchange very little of his life for them, saying somewhat boastfully,
For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living.
Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas and turnips.
The beans are for sale – Thoreau doesn’t even like beans, particularly.
In his accounting, Thoreau recognized income and outgo. The more he can reduce his outgo, the less income he will need and the more life he will have for himself: “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
Thoreau’s approach is still pursued by some today, as Simple Living. Wikipedia: “Simple living is distinct from those living in forced poverty, as it is a voluntary lifestyle choice.” Another expression of the same desire to be free of the tyranny of things is today’s Small House Movement. Thoreau wanted to be free to enjoy nature and write his books, to live in the moment. The economy described in Walden was his recipe for doing so.
This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.