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Thoreau’s ‘Paradise To Be Regained’

James Moran considers the archetypal American antedeluvian’s criticism of someone else’s technological paradise.

Henry David Thoreau is one of the best-loved authors in American history, and its most famous chronicler of the simple life. Some might argue that there are utopian elements in Thoreau’s account in Walden (1854) of his two years and two months living in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond. Of course, he is not describing an ideal society, but life as he enjoyed it on a daily basis. Nor does he argue that everyone should live as he did; rather he states that elements of what he learned might apply to those who find his insights agreeable. The utopian elements are found in his very idyllic account of his experience, and his many arguments about the way people were living in his day: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” This is not the model for the good life, and the idea that a different way of living is better for human well-being is at the heart of utopian thought. Having noted this, it is also fair to say that Thoreau had an anti-utopian dimension to his thinking. He does not seem to be the type to believe we could perfect ourselves and our society in any complete and final way. Improve ourselves, make society more humane, yes – but we should not expect perfect happiness.

These thoughts were prompted by my reading an interesting book review written by Thoreau in 1843 entitled ‘Paradise to be Regained’. It is a review of a utopian book by J.A. Etzler snappily called The Paradise Within the Reach of all Men, Without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery: An Address To All Intelligent Men, In Two Parts. One can see from the title that Etzler had grand visions of what the future could hold, if only mankind would adopt his ideas and begin to develop the machinery necessary to create a universal life of leisure within his lifetime. Anyone familiar with Thoreau’s comments on technology in Walden might anticipate how Thoreau might critique a project which seeks to create a ‘technological heaven on earth’.

Criticisms of utopian visions can employ a number of moves to show that the plan of a particular thinker is flawed. First, the critic often suggests that the social arrangements outlined can never be truly realized because they contradict certain intrinsic aspects of human nature. Humans will never live in perfect harmony because the human animal is not wired that way. Even if the social arrangements are a substantial improvement on present society this will not assure that new and different conflicts will not emerge, because human nature and the desires flowing from that nature make conflict inevitable. Thoreau incorporates elements of this critique in his comments on Etzler. Thoreau is generally skeptical of the power of ‘outer’ or social reforms to create perfection. A second critique of utopian plans is to argue that the suggested improvements, whether social, technological or personal, are not genuine improvements. Thoreau is not convinced that many of the technological improvements Etzler describes as possible would improve the quality of life. You may recall Thoreau’s comments in Walden on inventions that were celebrated by many: the telegraph, the train, the factory system of production. Thirdly, utopian critics often point out that the method outlined for moving from the problematic present society to the more perfect one fail to describe a viable path of change. In short, utopianism often over-simplifies what would be necessary to realize its goal. For instance, Etzler argues that a small initial monetary investment would multiply in such a way that within ten years we’ll be able to develop the necessary mechanical inventions to enable all to live in a paradise without work. Thoreau is skeptical that there is an easy monetary path to full human well-being.

Visions of Paradise

Let’s examine the elements of Etzler’s utopian vision, some of which Thoreau acknowledges expand imagination of what might be possible. A central element comes from Etzler’s belief that inventions of various kinds will improve the material level of life. Machine production could eliminate scarcity and starvation. He suggests that new agricultural methods could feed as many as a trillion people. Many inventions were developed throughout the nineteenth century, but Cyrus McCormick’s thresher is most relevant to Etzler’s agricultural production claim. Etzler also outlines improvements in transportation on land and water. Islands could be created to float around the world, enabling people to enjoy the best climates all year round. (R. Buckminster Fuller outlined a similar idea in the twentieth century.)

While some of Etzler’s ideas on technology seem grandiose, some are reasonable projections of what was possible in his day. For example, he envisages gas-lit streets and ground transportation capable of speeds of forty miles an hour. But Thoreau was never taken in by the idea that great speed would result in great benefits or a substantial improvement in human relations. A thinker who loved to walk, and enjoyed sitting still for long periods of time, was not likely to share Etzler’s enthusiasm for high speed mechanical travel. However, Thoreau did find sympathy with Etzler on one point regarding mechanical improvements, concerning the replacement of animal power with mechanical power, which they both hoped would eliminate some of the inhumane treatment inflicted on animals.

Another important part of Etzler’s utopian vision was the taming of nature. Gardens would replace swamps; mountains could be leveled and the land made useful for human inhabitation; canals would be constructed to provide highways for goods; forests cultivated; the ugly and unfriendly areas of the natural world made beautiful and friendly. Thoreau, who claimed that the wilderness is the salvation of mankind, certainly had reservations about making nature serve narrow economic ends. (This was a challenge later articulated by Aldo Leopold in his famous ‘Land Ethic’.) Thoreau found positive values in the wild, the uncultivated, the ‘ugly’, which his fellow citizens found obstacles to progress. So it’s understandable that he would cast a skeptical eye on Etzler’s shining vision of nature transformed. He humorously notes that humans acting on the idea of improving nature might entertain the idea of making flowers more beautiful, birds more skilled in flight and wild animals better behaved – although on this later point, he is not sure that getting animals to imitate human behavior would be an advancement in moral life for the animals, since humans can be so cruel. Thoreau thought that while the idea of working with nature to improve human life is not without merit, we should not believe that a life of material ease can substitute for the need for wild nature to provide aesthetic and spiritual values for our soul. And an absolute triumph over nature might rob us of the goods nature provides us freely without mechanical labors when we attend to her with respect. Recent environmentalists find support in Thoreau’s challenge to Etzler’s plans for nature.

By transforming nature and employing various inventions not yet realized, Etzler hopes to show how humans can soon live a life of ease and luxury. Labor will no longer be necessary and luxury will prevail once the proper economic and mechanical instruments are set in place. We can all live in palaces set in beautiful landscapes, with all our material needs satisfied without labor. A simple turn of a mechanical crank will call forth goods. Here Thoreau and other readers of Etzler’s address might begin to question the realism of Etzler’s utopian musings... Who will tend the gardens, cook the food, clean the barns, look after the machines? Thoreau, who worked to support himself, did not believe that healthy labor was something to do away with. Labor which presses down our souls, such as some forms of factory work, certainly should be tamed and made more human, if not done away with; but labor on the land and crafting things are among the pleasures of life. Talk of the ‘end of work’ seems to point beyond life as we experience it. Thoreau was of course sympathetic to Etzler’s wish to ease the burden of excessive labor and to promote a fair degree of leisure in life. However, Thoreau’s path as outlined in Walden was different from Etzler’s, as Thoreau had serious reservations about whether luxury was a proper goal to aim at. In Walden Thoreau asserts, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. ” The idea of Thoreau living a life of luxury in a palace is so incompatible with his life at Walden that we can easily understand his reservations about Etzler’s ‘palaces of luxury’.

Is Paradise Good for the Soul?

Like many other utopian thinkers, Etzler thinks that once the conditions for material prosperity have been realized, humans will be able to live stress-free, conflict-free, morally-enhanced lives. There will be no need for gambling, prostitution or other forms of dissipation, nor will the community be afflicted by robbery, murder or the violence of war. Children will learn in an easy and comfortable way, and work will dissolve. In short, life will be without struggle, pain and difficulty.

Thoreau, like many others who have thought about utopias of this sort, wonders whether this would be good for the soul, and questions whether the claims of a realized moral perfection are in any way compatible with the nature of human beings as we have experienced ourselves throughout history. Thoreau did believe in the moral improvement of individuals. He suggests that the virtues of love, justice and temperance could flourish in individuals if they undertook the proper inner transformation of their lives. He did not think that a social movement or a transformation of the material conditions of life were likely to result in the moral transformation Etzler envisioned; and as I have indicated, he had many reservations about the pleasures and luxuries which Etzler proposed for his ‘Paradise On Earth’.

© James Moran 2008

James Moran is Professor of Philosophy at Daemen College, Amherst, New York, and has also taught philosophy at Hunter College, Manhatten College and Rachel Carson College.

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