No time to be anything but a machine (Walden 4)

“[T]he laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

Ever feel this way? Does it make you feel better or worse to know this is from a book published in 1854?

Henry goes on to say a strange and remarkable thing in the next sentence:

“How can he remember well his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge?”

My first thought when reading this was that work itself sometimes has a way of reminding me how little I know! But I think what he’s getting at is that we tend to become experts at doing our work and living our lives. Within that zone (with some exceptions) we are knowledgeable and competent. And so we tend to think we know the world pretty well, when all we really know is our own little world.

To grow we need time away, time to explore the larger world around us, the world we don’t see when we’re in our daily groove.

How to make time? Henry’s going to talk about that later. But he’s already provided a clue about how far we’ll have to go to explore the world and bump up against the broad expanse of our ignorance. This is a man, after all, who has “travelled a good deal in Concord.”

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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