Division of Labor

Ron Paul Curriculum, English 1, Lesson 135

Write 500 words on this topic: “Was Thoreau dependent on the division of labor while he was living on Walden Pond?”

Throughout the book Walden, Henry David Thoreau describes his feelings about what a mistake the division of labor is, as well as how self-sufficiency and independence are ideal. He then describes his 26-month stay at Walden Pond, which is described by many as an example of simplicity, self-sufficiency, and independence. Unfortunately, Thoreau never really achieved true independence from the division of labor which he sought to avoid.

First, the rules and boundaries of the experiment need to be determined before it can be decided whether they have been broken. The definition of the “Division of Labor,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “the breakdown of labor into its components and their distribution among different persons, groups, or machines to increase productive efficiency.” Thus, when one person does work or a service for another, the division of labor has occurred. Thoreau seems to adhere to the extreme opposite ideology, where everyone should do their own labor, and make their own belongings. Excluding his occasional backtrack of everything he’s said prior, Thoreau believed that people should grow their own food. He thinks it’s a hardship to inherit tools from someone else, and he even thinks everyone should build their own houses. It can be inferred that Thoreau’s definition of “Division of Labor,” at least the kind that he despises, matches to an extent the Dictionary’s, except that Thoreau’s includes ideas. Thoreau believed that his elders had nothing important to tell him, “Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth,” and thought that it was much better to learn by experience rather than being taught by someone wiser. Therefore, Thoreau, by his own definition (or as close to a definition as we can get), should start at Walden Pond with absolutely nothing. No seeds, no tools, no anything. Realistically, it can’t be expected that he’ll forfeit his clothes and prior knowledge, so those he can start with. He will be disqualified if he obtains help from anyone else, and if it is so much better to start with nothing, rather than inheriting land and tools, he should have no problem keeping within these test boundaries.

Day Number Zero: Thoreau breaks the rules. “Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond”. By Thoreau’s own admissions, he has broken his own rules. He has been benefited by the labor of the man who put time and effort into buying, or even making the axe. Thoreau didn’t have to do any of that, and would have been worse off had the owner not obtained the axe (through the division of labor) in the first place. From the get-go, Thoreau has already violated his own belief in starting from scratch. Were he to stay true, he would have searched around the pond for materials to make his own axe, or another method of chopping trees. If it was so hard to do that, then he could have sat on a pumpkin, or slept in a casket-sized box (Pages 18-19), or even better lived in a simple hand-made wigwam.

Not only did Thoreau make an arguably innocent mistake early in his stay, but he continuously breaks his self-sufficiency by utilizing further the division of labor. He borrowed money to buy supplies, as well as giving his dirty laundry to his mom, and eating her apple pies. He bought seeds, implements, and he hired a man and his team to plow the soil. To his credit, he does say he held the plow himself, but if he truly believed that it was wrong to build on top of others’ progress, he would’ve built his own plow or hoe, and tilled the soil by himself, rather than paying someone for their time and the labor of their team. In total, these were $14.73 worth of mistakes. With regards to his mom doing his laundry and baking, it’s difficult to justify. She may have done it better or more easily, but he was still using her labor. It’s still division, even if it increases productive efficiency.

Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond was, unfortunately for Thoreau, less of a triumph than most people make it out to be. The reliance on the division of labor was never really broken, nor was it even temporarily escaped from. Had Thoreau truly broken from it, he would likely have found his life extremely uncomfortable and difficult. He would have then maybe embraced division after realizing how much it increased the quality of life of everyone.

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6 thoughts on “Division of Labor

  1. I attended a school where we learned to write. When I entered college I learned few other had. As a rsult, I cruised through freshman English. I my last years of working as a substitute teacher I found students did not even understand writing a paragraph, let alone a theme. a sentence was considered a completed paper. what has happened?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your understanding and critique of Thoreau is well presented. Your writing is clear and easy to follow. I enjoyed your essay very much.
    Don Barger

    Liked by 2 people

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