We Are the Tools of Our Tools

Treat Thompson



Discovery by Remedios Varo

In 1845, Henry Thoreau went to live in the woods as an experiment. He wanted to understand his life better by stripping it to its core and becoming self-reliant.

His immediate realization was that societys priorities leave us with less fulfillment than people had in the past, despite (or because of?) material progress.

He noticed our lives are spent struggling to keep luxuries that are supposed to remove our struggle. The means of getting by has become our end goal.

Men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven. We have adopted Christianity merely as an improved method of agriculture. We have built for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

His prime example was how our houses own us—which is even more true today, almost 200 years later.

The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself.

To get his shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle. With consummate skill he has set his trap with a hair spring to catch comfort and independence, and then, as he turned away, got his own leg into it. This is the reason he is poor; and for a similar reason we are all poor in respect to a thousand [ancestral] comforts, though surrounded by luxuries.

As Chapman sings, "The false society of men—for earthly greatness all heavenly comforts rarefies to air."

And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

He thought living like this was backwards.

We should prioritize having a solid foundation for a remarkable life before chasing knick-knacks and luxuries.

The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful.

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: now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

Which is why he didn't want to buy himself a house.

Living by the current norms doesn't set you up for a fulfilling life.

When I think of acquiring for myself one of our luxurious dwellings, I am deterred, for, so to speak, the country is not yet adapted to human culture, and we are still forced to cut our spiritual bread far thinner than our forefathers did their wheaten.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

So he found one outside of the norms—in the woods.

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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)