On Walden Pond: "For My Greatest Skill Has Been to Want But Little."

After discussing the size of our houses in Chapter One of Walden Thoreau turns next to the issue of furniture. From the first mention and continuing through the rest of the chapter, furniture becomes for Thoreau a sort of metaphor for the general clutter of our lives. This clutter bothers Thoreau for a few reasons.

First, the clutter is often unnecessary, being driven mainly by vanity and the desire for ornamentation or luxury. Second, the clutter creates more work. Clutter needs to be cared for and taken care of. The daily workload to care for all our stuff is enormous. Think of all the dusting, washing, mopping, mowing, vacuuming, and other sorts of activities we engage in to care for our stuff. We are, quite literally, enslaved to our stuff. Our stuff demands constant effort, attention, time, money and service. We serve our stuff more than we serve God or others. Consequently, simplifying our lives becomes a route toward liberation and freedom. Toward less work and less worry. But the trick, as Thoreau notes, is contentment. Thus, one of my favorite quotes from Walden, words to live by: "[F]or my greatest skill has been to want but little."

Some other quotes from Chapter One of Walden on this subject:

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass.
I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.
Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation.
[L]et the ornaments take care of themselves.
Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessities, but for want of luxuries; and I know a good woman who thinks that her son lost his life because he took to drinking water.
Pray, for what do we move ever but to get rid of our furniture...
Of course, most know that the great modern Thoreau-inspired commentary on all our clutter is George Carlin's observations about "stuff."

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5 thoughts on “On Walden Pond: "For My Greatest Skill Has Been to Want But Little."”

  1. My friends were often shocked the first time they came over to my family's house and saw my bedroom. It was not the size that surprised them, although my bedroom is quite large for a bedroom, but how few possessions I have. My room does not have a closet and I have never felt the need for one (the few items of clothing I own that must be kept on hangers I keep in my mother's closet). My bed has only one thing under it: a box of mementos. All my clothes (except the closet clothes I mentioned above) fit into a small dresser. I have an bedside table with one drawer for stuff like medicine, glasses, book light, etc. My only storage areas are a file cabinet, for files and office supplies, and a TV stand with a small cabinet underneath, for general storage. While I have knick-knacks, I like to keep them to a minimum. The only thing that I have an over-abundance over is books. I have 5 books shelves. If you took those out, my bedroom could easily be described as bare.

    This is all mostly for two reasons: I greatly dislike clutter and I am a neat freak. Both of these preferences make my life easier, especially because I am quite absent-minded and lose things easily. I have no problem with people who like to collect many different things or whose rooms and/or houses are full of stuff, I just prefer a more minimalistic approach. I have never felt I am lacking anything because of it.

  2. From Wikipedia: 

    "of the 58,000 storage facilities worldwide in 2009, 46,000 were located in the United States... There is more than 2.35 billion square feet of self storage in the U.S., or a land area equivalent to three times Manhattan Island under roof... One in ten U.S. households now rent a self storage unit..."

    I read somewhere that the storage industry in the United States is significantly larger than the film industry. Nice. Go, America!

  3. I can imagine a nice sermon (or blog post) comparing God's storehouses and ours.  If the biblical precedent (building bigger barns) is anything to go by, I'd better sell all my (fictitious) Wall Street shares.  Thanks for the prophetic (insider trading?) tip-off.

  4. Every Walden post reminds me of this classic Louis CK rant. I love this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk

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