The Ecopsychology Issue

A Simpler, Freer Life

Insights from Thoreau for the coming year.

“Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives,” Thoreau began one of his essays, noting that since time was short he would “leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism,” as was his way. “What is it to be born free and not to live free?” he asked his fellow citizens. “Is it a freedom to be slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast?” America may have been free from political tyrants, but it was painfully clear to Thoreau that it was “still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant.” A tyrant called Mammon.

This world is a place of “incessant business,” he was to lament, and there was “nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.” He also wrote that “It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once,” but there is “nothing but work, work, work.” To be sure, Thoreau was not opposed to labor, industry or enterprise, as such. His concern, rather, was that the ways by which money is acquired “almost without exception lead downward,” almost always involve “lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourself into a nutshell of civility, or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him.” And “those services which the community will most readily pay for, it is most disagreeable to render.” Thus, “It is not enough to [say] that you worked hard to get your gold. So does the Devil work hard.”

For these reasons Thoreau thought that to do anything merely for the sake of acquiring money or material superfluities was to be “truly idle or worse.” The following passage states his position directly:

If I should sell my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for … I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.

But Thoreau saw his townsfolk laboring under this very mistake. “It is a fool’s life,” he asserted bluntly, “as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.” He had traveled widely in Concord, and everywhere, in shops, offices and fields, the inhabitants seemed to him to be leading lives of “quiet desperation” and doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. “The 12 labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only 12, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor.” Thoreau likened people’s materialistic cravings to the heads of a hydra, noting that “as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.”

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “Those who know they have enough are rich.” Thoreau was telling his contemporaries that they had “enough” but that they did not know it, and so were poor. Always wanting more luxuries and comforts and never content with less, he felt that they did not understand the meaning of “economy,” did not understand that the “cost of thing is the amount of … life which is required to be exchanged for it.” “Most men,” he wrote, “even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance or mistake, are so occupied with factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.” By a “seeming fate,” there was “no time to be anything but a machine.”

And for what? People’s lives were being “plowed into the soil for compost” just to obtain “splendid houses” and “finer and more abundant clothing … and the like.” But as Thoreau was to insist: “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.” Indeed he claimed that “most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” More concerned about accumulating nice things or climbing the social ladder than they were about their own destinies, people astounded Thoreau with how “frivolous” they were with respect to their own lives – as if they could “kill time without injuring eternity.”

Thoreau’s life is a reminder that dedicated individuals can establish a simpler, freer way of life for themselves, simply by adopting a new frame of mind and acting on it with creativity and conviction. Doing so may not be easy, of course, since it will involve moving away from where most of humankind is marching. But as Thoreau would say, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Thoreau would also advise us not to wait for our politicians or peers to attain enlightenment before we begin our journey toward simplicity, for it might be a long time before they wake up. Those who have the courage to go forward alone, however, can start today.

Samuel Alexander is the author of Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture. He is the founder of the Life Poets’ Simplicity Collective, a grassroots “network of imaginations” dedicated to advancing the Voluntary Simplicity Movement.

52 comments on the article “A Simpler, Freer Life”

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Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.

What makes you think the monk automatically must feel grateful to his alms givers!? What an arrogant assumption to need to make in order for this to be true. It's out of the decency, out of the respect, out of the kindness of that monks heart that he feels any gratitude. How dare someone do something nice for someone and assume gratitude is in order! Pompous! Conceited! Radical!

Give and contribute whatever you like. If that isn't reward enough then you aren't really giving or contributing to anything but a culture of blackmail, bribery, corruption and groveling. Do your good deeds and feel rewarded that you got to be one of the givers, beyond that you will probably get nothing, so expect nothing.


Simplicity is good in some sense, but it could be taken too far. What about the drive to make humanity better, curing diseases, keeping people a world away connected through technology, learning about the wonders of the universe through science? These problems can not be solved through simplicity, material or otherwise, since advances today require computers, labs, material goods (which actually can be good!). It is a wonder of human ingenuity that many in this world benefit from clean running water, food, penicillin and more sophisticated life saving medications, etc. These feats were not simple and until every human being can benefit in the same way and look forward to the freedom of thinking beyond just trying to survive day by day, we shouldn't be content to create our own pulpit shutting ourselves away in a comfortable little cottage and living off the hard work of others to provide our daily bread.


It is a curious thing, while observing many similar comments about Thoreau, it appears that here in America we lack a concept that many civilizations believe to be integral to finding happiness and indeed it is fundamental to all ecosystems. In Sweden it is called "Lagom", in China it is called the "Tao", here in America we dance around the concept and talk about sustainability and living "balanced" or in "harmony". It appears we are plagued with the idea of all or nothing politics, or the politics of extremes. Instead, a better approach might be, as a Buddhist might suggest, the "middle way".


Please consider reading the article
"The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race"
by Jared Diamond
published in the May 1987 issue of Discover magazine
and online at
in which he makes a decent case that replacing hunting & gathering with agriculture started us down the path to our present predicament.

Regardless, if we don't quickly and collectively get better at defining and living the good life, who will be left to say, "I told you so"?


Excellent article, as usual, Adbusters! Thanks a lot, you're giving food for thought and soul.
For anyone searching for ideas how to transform Thoreau's ideas to today's life, I'd like to recommend the book "Radical simplicity" by Jim Merkel. Or search the web for some interviews with him - inspiring person who's getting it DONE.

Have a sane 2012 everyone!


Living a simple life runs contrary to American ideas. I say we go faster and work harder to stay ahead of everyone else. If you want to be 2nd place go live in one of those 3rd world countries. I say we bring back the 80s in America. Money, Money, Money!!!!


That short sighted approach is what has got us in this mess in the first place. Small minds won't understand this article... thanks for proving that.


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