Thoreau on progress

People familiar with John Gray’s writing will know Gray thinks human progress is less a fact than a myth.

He means specifically progress in human affairs, rather than in technology or medicine, for example, and it’s a view I suspect Henry David Thoreau would also subscribe to now.

Here is Thoreau writing on what I take to be the myth of progress in Walden:

While civilization has been improving our homes, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.


Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.

To me it seems Thoreau is picking up on two separate things here: one is the quality of men who have risen to lead, and the second is the quality and type of institutions through which such men govern and to what end. In both points, Thoreau reaches a Gray-like conclusion on the myth of progress.

In Civil Disobedience, his famous ‘political’ essay, Thoreau takes things further: he advocates nonviolent means as the most effective way of creating social change, especially against the law and political institutions.

Though at the heart of Thoreau’s writings is the individual rather than the collective, there is something in what he has to say about ‘the machine’ which is relevant if we are to understand the myth of progress and to proceed anyway:

All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough to counterbalance the evil. But when the friction comes to have its machine, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.


On Walden

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Image from the Thoreau Reader
Image from the Thoreau Reader

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau moved to live in solitude in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts. Walden is his account not only of the rhythms and patterns of the time he spent there, but a series of reflections on wider themes, particularly the rhythms and patterns of mankind.

Reading Walden and other biographical details of Thoreau, I personally found it hard to like him. He feels too critical of fellow men and too impressed by his own actions and way of doing things.

Nevertheless there is a kernel in his thinking I found to be very attractive. This was the sense of focusing only on the things that matter in life to you, and not being distracted from them by “pretty toys”.

Thoreau has found that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and that a “stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed under what are called the games and amusements of mankind”. As a result, he feels that “men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street… their shadows morning and evening reach further than their daily steps.”

Where I found Thoreau most appealing was in his encouragement that the ability to change away from this can come from ourselves. He notes we are all “sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones” and that we must therefore:

Learn to reawaken ourselves and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn… I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour… Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

Though it may not take as radical a solution as being alone in a secluded wood for two years, this essence of Thoreau’s thinking makes Walden a worthwhile, if not challenging, study.

(For readers who may not read it all, the sections on Economy, Where I Lived, Reading and the Conclusion contain Thoreau’s most pertinent arguments relevant to the themes I highlight above.)