Striking at the branches of poverty (Walden 43)

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday’s liberty for the rest.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The context here is that Henry was telling of a poor-looking Irishman who had fallen in the pond and came into Henry’s cabin to warm himself. Looking at the man’s ragged clothing, Henry offered to give him some… until the man pulled off three layers of clothes, all old and dirty but warm and more than adequate for the weather.

“Then I began to pity myself, and I saw that it would be a greater charity to bestow on me a flannel shirt than a whole slop-shop on him,” Henry writes, and his very next sentence is the oft-quoted passage at the top of this page.

In other words, often we don’t know what we’re looking at. We make assumptions and ‘strike at the branches’ of a problem because we haven’t bothered to look deeper and understand it fully. In this case Henry realized that the potential object of his charity was at least as well off as he was. He just needed to dry off.

I can see two ways to read the part about producing the misery you strive to relieve. One is what we might call a conservative reading, in which Henry is warning us to be careful that our charity doesn’t produce helplessness. Another reading, and one that I think is more supported by the immediate context, comes from the picture of the pious slave owner, who makes a token effort to help some of the people who suffer enormous harm by his actions.

How does the slave owner feel about himself? Naturally, he will feel righteous and generous. In his mind he will focus on the good thing that he has done and see that as representative of his morality. But the part about owning slaves? That’s not a moral issue. That’s just business. And it won’t occur to him that his generosity doesn’t come anywhere near to making up for the effects of his greed.

That’s the power of self-justification. How often do people create the conditions of poverty through their politics or business practices, and then feel good and generous because they give some of their wealth or time to relieve a small fraction of poverty’s effects?

We’re all prone to that kind of thinking. Sometimes it’s just easier to strike at the branches of a problem. In this way we convince ourselves that we really do want to solve it, but in the end the branches always grow back.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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