Have you heard of the small house movement? These are people who are essential asking the same question as Thoreau: How much stuff do you really need? I find their tiny abodes fascinating (even though I’m not going to move into one myself).
If nothing else, looking at a picture like the one at left will probably make your own home seem palatial in scale. Most of these are full of modern conveniences that Henry would find unnecessary, but I think the spirit is essentially the same: Simplify.
The previous entry’s quote, “…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run,” comes in the middle of a discussion of the cost of a “modern” house compared to an Indian wigwam. In Walden, Henry notes that the average laborer’s house costs ten to fifteen years of labor, more if the man has a family. “Would the savage have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?” He says that the local assessor told him there weren’t a dozen people in Concord who owned the farms free and clear.
Remember that the modern mortgage was invented in the 1930s; before that time mortgaging your property put you in a really onerous situation with high interest and fewer legal protections than homeowners enjoy today. But Henry’s idea still has relevance. Is your home a financial burden than inhibits your freedom, causes you worry, maybe ties you to a job you dislike? Regarding housing, as with clothing or possessions, Thoreau’s idea was to strip everything down and see how little he could get by with, to preserve his freedom.
A radical proposition, just as the tiny modern house shown above seems pretty radical, but it raises the same questions. How much to you really need? At what point does more become a burden that takes more from you than it gives?
(About “A Year in Walden”)