How to get by working only six weeks a year (Walden 37)

“For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

He made it on six weeks of work a year, in an 1840s economy in which an hour’s labor didn’t buy much. On the other hand, an 1840s worker didn’t expect as much, and Thoreau’s expectations of material comforts were set low even by those standards. It helped that he had no family to support, and no health insurance premiums (or taxes to support health care) — after all, medicine was still mostly quackery anyway. You were probably better off without a doctor.

What would you do if you didn’t work, but had just enough money to get by? What would be your priorities?

“The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.”

That’s not how most people would use the time, but I can think of two things to note about it:

1) By “study,” Henry isn’t just talking about books. His whole world, woods and village, was his textbook.

2) I don’t think Henry was ever bored. That’s why he didn’t have time to work much — everything around him was so interesting that he had to give it his full attention. Listening to him talk, his neighbors must have thought he was living in another world. Which in many ways he was. He transformed his world simply by looking at it deeply and being fully present in it.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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