Henry David Thoreau on the Division of Labor

Henry David Thoreau on the Division of Labor

“Where is this division of labor to end?  No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.”

-—-Henry David Thoreau

Originally I wrote this as part of my “Work and Philosophy” series; but since I am rewriting that section and still think the original has some merit as it is, I am preserving it here as a separate fragment.

Thoreau lived at the beginning of the worldwide Industrial Revolution.  The division of labor, the harnessing of machines and the mass production of commodities had given the English a growing middle class with the highest standard of living in the world.  They drank tea from India, smoked pipes with American tobacco and wore cotton grown in the United States, they ate from porcelain made from China (called “china” even today), and used a wide variety of clothes, cutlery, and other luxury goods the generation earlier would have found amazing.  They even had commemorative cups and saucers, coins and other goods, like the sort of things we buy today from late-night television commercials.  Industrialization led to mass production, which in turn gave rise to consumerism.  Today, we might call this “The American Way;” but in the mid-nineteenth century, it was the English way—-and Thoreau was not impressed.[6]

Thoreau had three primary complaints against the division of labor and “the English way” of providing goods.  One was that the division of labor alienates one from the conditions of one’s own life, and from life itself.[7]  When one works to provide one’s own food and shelter, one is part of life; when one works to buy them, one is part of something else, of an institution perhaps or a system.  Our spirits do not sing.  We are not like songbirds who sing while they build their own nests or feed their own families; we are like cuckoos who rely on others to do the work, divorcing us from our very selves, leaving us unpoetic and unproductive souls.  Next, this division of labor separates the individual from the need, encouraging the individual to become fixated on the shallow and useless rather than the vitally necessary.[8]  “I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.”[9]  Thoreau argued that one’s work should meet the needs of one’s own life, and the realities of the world.[10]  Thus, for example, he argued that college students would do well to build their own shelters instead of renting dormitory apartments, that the one who wishes to learn metallurgy should try digging and smelting his own ore, and that the poor student would do better to learn personal economy than to study Adam Smith for four years while bankrupting his parents.  “To my astonishment,” he writes, “I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation!—why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it.”[11]  The division of labor means that workers are (to use another man’s terms) alienated from their products, and from themselves and their own needs.  What one does is not an expression of one’s own personality or ability at all, and it does not connect one to the world.  That was the whole point of Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment:  to see what he could do without, and thus to see what was truly important and what was mere chaff.  As he puts it, “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.”[12]

Because we forget what is truly essential, we are attracted to style over substance, fashion over functionality, cornice over foundation.  When we have provided for our needs, we fulfill our desires; and when we have fulfilled those, we fill the desires we are told to have by our neighbors and the businesses that want our money.  As Thoreau says, the purpose of the “English” style of industrial mass production is not that people should have the best goods, but that corporations should be enriched.[13]  Then as now, the makers of consumer goods invested a great deal of effort in shaping tastes and fashions, so that people would be obliged to continue buying new things to remain respectable in the eyes of their neighbors.  And this division of labor makes it possible for many to continually change their wardrobes, redecorate their houses and even buy the most fashionable books to display on their coffee tables, though they have no time to read—-they divide the labor, and let reviewers do that for them.  But what of the people who produce this bounty?  “The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another.”[14]  The whole purpose of the division of labor is, after all, to eliminate personal effort and to eliminate skill, so that as much as possible can be done by unskilled, cheap and expendable workers.  For every one noble buried beneath a pyramid, there were dozens of architects and artists to design it, living in much more modest circumstances, and below them thousands laboring in anonymous squalor.  Today, we might look at the cornucopia of goods we Americans enjoy, and contrast it with the drudgery of the sweatshop and the tomato field.

The final result of this division of labor, Thoreau argues, is the destruction of the individual and the nation.  “It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow.”[15]  To show that we are as good as anyone, we want to display our wealth by having nice things to show off.  What were once the baubles of the rich and bored become the ornaments and, eventually, the necessities of the industrious, how we prove to each other that we are worthwhile and industrious.  Over time, we become soft and weak and cannot survive without these former luxuries.  He repeatedly compares the physical endurance and strength of the non-industrialized peoples (Laplanders, nomadic Arabs, native Americans or natives of Terra del Fuego) with the weakness and lack of ingenuity shown by “civilized” people.  Ultimately, this weakness of body also becomes weakness of character, and the weakness of the individual becomes the weakness family lines, and finally of the civilization itself.[16]

To be continued…..


[6] Henry David Thoreau, Walden; from The Viking Portable Library:  Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode (New York:  The Viking Press, 1975)Walden pp. 281-82

[7] Walden, pp. 300-01

[8] Walden, pp. 276-80, 301-02

[9] Walden, p. 277

[10] Walden, pp. 304-06

[11] Walden, p. 306

[12] Walden p. 343

[13] Walden, p. 282

[14] Walden, p. 289

[15] Walden, p. 291

[16] Walden, p. 270

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2 Responses to “Henry David Thoreau on the Division of Labor”

  1. D. Garnett Says:

    Glenn, your piece on Thoreau and work got me to thinking how work is viewed and carried out in a modern-day monastery. I think the monks would understand something of what Thoreau was trying to say about work. Monks work out a whole life in which work is a part, but not the dominant, all-consuming part. The most important part of life, for a monk, is worship and prayer, that is, developing one’s relationship with God, and work becomes another form of worship and prayer. Work is certainly not seen as an effort to gain luxuries for oneself, but an effort to sustain the community’s continued existence. I do see in the monastery a division of labor, but also a rotation of labor, so that nobody gets stuck doing one job forever.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      Thoreau does compare the life he advocates with the lives of philosophers and religious sages of all ages and traditions. He says there is no path to wisdom without the discipline of voluntary poverty, although “poverty” is relative—-he advocates a simple diet, but I haven’t read anything about him advocating fasting, for example. He writes a lot about renunciation of luxury and some comforts, rather than the embrace of hardship for its own sake.

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