John Kaag and Jonathan Van Belle

ISBN 978-0-691-24469-3



Reviewed by Alan Dent



Thoreau was thought a loafer, but he wrote a journal of two million words and was dead by his mid-forties. A puzzle. The answer is Thoreau worked without appearing to, without the conspicuous effort necessary if you’re trying to please a boss or climb the greasy pole. Work, for Thoreau, was as natural as breathing and he wasn’t interested in display. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone” he wrote an observation which fits well with “Nothing can be more useful to a man than a determination not to be hurried.” Thoreau would be out of place in our business and employment culture where being hurried is taken to be a sign of productivity, although it often accompanies the opposite.


He is famous for his assertion: “That government is best which governs least”, put to mischievous use by neo-liberals who ignore its anarchistic core. An ecologist before the word was coined (1866) Thoreau asked, “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Kaag and Van Belle quote the physicist Joseph Ford who calls evolution: “Chaos with feedback.” Thoreau was alert to the need to live in keeping with nature, which means being attuned to it rather than fitting it within a necessarily inadequate theoretical grid.

“Simplify” was his motto, but not in the sense of being simplistic; rather it’s a matter of getting the essence and discarding the flummery. This is what he did during his time at Walden Pond. He stood our culture on its head: rather than working madly for more money for more things, he reduced his needs to the minimum. Such a strategy would, of course, be disastrous for our economy which relies on people buying with money they don’t have things they don’t need.


Kaag and Van Belle, interestingly, link Thoreau to their own lives. Part of the charm lies in this shift from his nineteenth century existence to theirs in the late twentieth, early twenty-first.  Thoreau was a rare and remarkable man, but their transposition of his behaviours and ideas to their own and their families’ lives makes his example relevant: you don’t have to be a genius to apply some of his wisdom. Thoreau believed in the value of manual work. The authors point out, quite rightly, it can be tedious, killing, ruinous to health. The question, of course, is who is organising the work and for what purpose. There’s a supposition in Thoreau that people must be allowed to choose for themselves, to find their way to a self-reliance which isn’t a repudiation of others but care for them in not wanting to be either a burden or a hindrance. From our point of view, it’s hard to see how we can find our way out of the pursuit of material wealth which blights our lives. Our expectations are at odds with self-reliance; but paradoxically, our technological advances are on our side. If we use them wisely, they can permit us an escape from work routines which might re-enchant productive effort. Thoreau mocked what the authors call “techno-utopia” of the kind advocated by the demented (but only slightly more than Donald Trump) Adolphous Etzler: “We will teach birds to fly and fishes to swim and ruminants to chew the cud.” What would Thoreau make of the claims for AI?


“Improved means to an unimproved end” was Thoreau’s encapsulation of much technological invention. It could be a typification of the essence of our culture whose failed idea of progress is all too evident (but which nevertheless drives the current war on Gaza where Netanyahu proposes Israel as the country of light and Palestinians as bearers of darkness). Would Thoreau have owned a mobile? Unlikely. His remark regarding the telegraph is apposite. 

He isn’t often thought of as a humourist, but the authors point to his wit and delight in levity. When asked on his deathbed if he’d made his peace with God, he quipped: “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His humour usually has a dark side; he doesn’t play to the gallery. The authors remark, “It may be that in the history of human survival, dark jokes deserve as much credit…as hope.” The ability to laugh at what is most serious, though superficially akin to Orwell’s double-think (the ability to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously and believe both) may well be part of what saves us from despair and absolute certainty. Milan Kundera conceives life as a perilous walk between these two chasms. Leslie Brothers in her intriguing Friday’s Footprint: How Society Shapes the Human Mind, argues conversation is the basis of human society. Perhaps Thoreau would have appreciated that. It’s easy for the sermon, the lecture, the broadcast, the political speech to propound foolishness; but in conversation most of what is conveyed is non-verbal. When people are physically close to you, looking into your eyes, picking up on your tone of voice, watching your demeanour, it’s much harder to fool them. The snake-oil salesman needs distance from those he dupes which is why most of our culture depends on such distance. Thoreau is very much a conversationalist, including in his writing. 

In his last book, Cape Cod, Thoreau mocks America’s founding myth of angelic exiles from persecution creating “a city upon a hill”. “Not Any,” he writes, “seems to have been the sole proprietor of all America before the Yankees.” He is quietly ironic about laying claim to land. “At any rate, I know that if you hold a thing unjustly, there will surely be the devil to pay at last.” By holding unjustly the USA has become the most powerful nation and the devil is paid over and over, most recently in Gaza. 

“I hate the present modes of living and getting a living. Farming and shopkeeping and working at a trade or profession are all odious to me.” I suspect most people today would pull up short at that and wonder what other mode of life is possible. When Karl Marx, inheritor of the tradition of grand theory, was elaborating an all-embracing doctrine of revolutionary change, Thoreau in a couple of sentences could be far more subversive, and with no hint of the establishment of a new materialist religion. The difference lies in Thoreau’s cleaving to nature, his recognition that as products of nature the limits of our capacities must be pre-determined and living well means living within them. A great deal of contemporary work is unnecessary: poor people in the global south sweat to produce cheap, throwaway clothes wasteful youngsters in the rich countries sport for narcissistic display. Thoreau considered boring, meaningless work  a waste of life, however much money it brought. Bert Lawrence, influenced by Thoreau, put it nicely: “Ninepence means nothing to me unless it’s ninepence worth of life.” 

“If you would get money as a writer or lecturer, you must be popular, which is to go down perpendicularly.” We have created a culture where everything is judged by the yardsticks of popularity and commercialism. A fine poem read by ten people is worthless. A bad poem bought by a million is marvellous. Such is the way we are destroying ourselves. 

Kaag and Van Belle’s book is a heartening contribution to reflections on Thoreau whose simple wisdom, while no panacea, has a great deal to teach us, if only we would do what he did so well: pay attention.