Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Thoreau in Jail: True Happiness?

In Chapter 11, Conquest of Wilderness, it seems that incarceration would provide an excellent environment for Thoreau’s new economics.

Thoreau wouldn’t be faced with the “blind capitalization of material goods,” and the essential requirements for sustenance are provided by the state—folks who work and pay taxes. Anyone can work and pay taxes—so this fits into Thoreau’s theory of “living.”

“Thoreau wrote in a letter that when considering a course of action, one should ask: ‘Could someone else do it in my place?’ If the answer is yes, abandon the idea, unless it is absolutely essential. But it is still not bound up in the inevitable part of life. Living, in the deepest sense, is something no one else can do for us” (p. 90).

Additionally, as noted in the passage below, Thoreau would gain a day every week, and maybe more. Thoreau’s health (as later noted) could take a turn for the worse, and he might need medical attention. Although Thoreau argues that living is something no one else can do for us, sometimes it requires someone else (a doctor, for example) to keep us “living.”

“The reckoning was established, almost inverting the rhythm of the laborious, religious week: to make enough to live simply, one day’s work a week is sufficient. All the other days worked are to earn the useless, the futile, the luxurious, and they devour the essential” (p. 91).

As Thoreau noted, there would have to be “calculations”: what would he gain or lose by permanent incarceration?

Free room and board is a given plus. Plenty of time to think too, away from the shackles and chains of earning a living, owning possessions, and paying taxes. Provided he didn’t try to shank an inmate or guard, he would have every opportunity to take long walks in the yard daily, alone with his spirituality.

Certainly, Thoreau wouldn’t be a prisoner of his wishes for prosperity or a prisoner of one’s self.

Then again, incarceration wouldn't afford a change of scenery. That might be problematic for Thoreau, save the occasional cat or squirrel scampering through the yard.  What about all those "foreigners"?

But, you know--calculations.

DQ: Do you think Thoreau would be happier in jail or prison?


  1. My common sense is telling me that Thoreau would be happier in jail since the time served would be shorter. However, going off of the theoretical assumptions and your and Thoreau's statements it does seem that Thoreau would favor solitary confinement. I think what is being missed here is one's sanitary in the entire situation. What is it to gain favorable economics at the expense of one's soul and health.

  2. My pal Henry would get roughed up a bit in jail, I fear, as he's getting roughed up here. He was roughed up pretty savagely last year in a New Yorker essay too. Seems like there's been an anti-Henry backlash lately. But I still defend the author of Walden and Walking, who suffers easy but false caricature as a hermetic misanthrope.He was really just a young guy searching for himself, and substantially succeeding in that amazing book. "Simplify, simplify" - if that's not a message for our time I don't know what is.

  3. I think that would be my second discussion question: is it possible to simplify in today's world? What would that even mean?

    There's a movement of folks who sell everything and move into their van or RV. But that's being commercialized too--like walking. You can't park or walk everywhere either. How do we do it?