Thoreau’s Ferocious Critique of Philanthropy Does Not Make Him “Selfish”

Statue of Thoreau in front of a replica of the cabin he lived in while he was writing "Walden." Image courtesy flickr user Chris Devers via Creative Commons

After Kathryn Schulz’s eviscerating portrait of Thoreau in the New Yorker, the nineteenth-century nature boy has had no shortage of apologists. Jonathan Malesic salvages Thoreau’s political vision, defending his Puritanical sparseness when it came to clothing and furniture not as the quirks of a joyless curmudgeon, but as a means through which he might carve out more free time to think, to wrestle with the moral questions. Jedediah Purdy gives a nod to Thoreau’s legacy as a “genuine American weirdo” and reclaims Thoreau as someone who, far from retreating into self-centered isolation, wrote obsessively about his fellow citizens and how best to relate to them. Donovan Hohn even gives him back his humor—where Schulz wrote, “Thoreau regarded humor as he regarded salt, and did without”—gleaning parody (and fart jokes) that were missed in Schulz’s reading.

Funny to think that this weirdo can still cause such an uproar; Schulz joked that she would be joining the Witness Protection Program after her piece was posted online. But the truth is, it’s so easy to get the man wrong. I am sympathetic to the instinct that animates Schulz, the suspicion that Americans love Thoreau mostly because selfish individualism is our national religion and he is one of its loudest—or at least most famous—defenders. But Schulz’s reading of the man’s writing is facile.

Where Thoreau writes—responding to the townsmen’s critique of his selfishness—“I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises,” Schulz quotes it as evidence that “this thoroughgoing misanthrope did not care to help other people.” But her interpretation is too quick. And dismissing Thoreau on this point leaves us without the tools he provides for diagnosing some of capitalism’s deepest ironies.

In Walden, an eight-paragraph critique of philanthropy follows this line, in which Thoreau suggests that there is a relevant distinction between “philanthropic enterprises” and what Schulz describes as “helping other people.” Thoreau avoided philanthropic enterprises not because he resented helping other people (there are too many examples in which he did provide help to others) but because he thought philanthropy was usually driven by selfishness. He wrote: “Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it.” Philanthropy, he thought, was based more on the desire of the reformer to seem good than the goal of helping others.

Worse, Thoreau worried that in many cases the “philanthropists” were in fact producing the economic circumstances their giving was aimed at alleviating. In Thoreau’s place and time, developing forms of industrial capitalism required poor workers to live wherever wages were offered, and to work in whatever conditions jobs required. Conditions were not usually good.

Schulz’s dismissal of Thoreau’s asceticism as dour and judgmental misses the point. Thoreau avoided unnecessary new clothes not merely for the sake of some ideal of “purity,” but because he wanted to avoid supporting an economy that enriched a few while mistreating the rest:

I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched.

When those who earned their wealth by mistreating the poor workers they employed sought honor for giving a small portion of their wealth in charity, Thoreau called foul. “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.” He went on to use a striking analogy, “It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday’s liberty for the rest.” Slave-breeder is, of course, a polite term for one who perpetrated sexual violence upon enslaved people and then sold their children. Readers who shared his abolitionist leanings would have recognized the hypocrisy of “the pious slave-breeder.” Thoreau’s point was that the capitalist’s philanthropy wasn’t much better.

The hypocritical cover of philanthropic enterprises remains in use today. The travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux wrote earlier this month in the New York Times about communities across the South where factories have closed as jobs went overseas, a shift that has been broadcast as part of an effort “to uplift impoverished people” around the world. But such heroism is hypocritical. Theroux writes,

I found towns in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas that looked like towns in Zimbabwe, just as overlooked and beleaguered… Big companies have always sought cheaper labor, moving from North to South in the United States, looking for the hungriest, the most desperate, the least organized, the most exploitable.

Press coverage of conditions in Apple’s factories in China has been anything but glowing. Yet when Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, says he’ll give his personal wealth to charities of his choice (many of them in Silicon Valley), he gets praise and Apple gets good press. Never mind that his $800 million is unlikely to find its way into the hands of those looking for work at a living wage. Theroux has also written on do-gooding in Africa, which he doesn’t find any better.

Thoreau’s diagnosis of our philanthropic spirit was that we give because it soothes our own pain. “I believe that what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail.” Philanthropy is driven, on this view, by the relief it offers the giver as a kind of penance. Contemporary social scientific work on charity supports Thoreau’s claim that giving is often a balm for the giver as much as an aid to the receiver. And we are inclined to feel just as good about giving small sums as we are about large ones. Still, our pleasure in giving need not be a problem. Why would it be a bad thing for us to feel good about doing good?

Leave aside the much-debated question of whether and under what economic circumstances philanthropy does good, the debate that has given rise to the movement for “effective altruism.” Assume all giving does good. Nonetheless, even those of us with less money to give than Apple’s Tim Cook (which is most of us after all) might worry that the so-called “warm glow” we get from giving absolves us of more systematic efforts for justice. We give money absent-mindedly when we have the cash, to whatever charity is close at hand, but do we support political efforts that would reform the relationships that created the need for our philanthropy in the first place? In other words, writing a check often becomes an easy substitute for actually building the relationships required to enact political change that would ameliorate the economic conditions for the people we mean to help. Thoreau shared this concern: “I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind.” By this I take him to mean that philanthropic giving is fine—do it if you like it—but it will not enact a just society.

Those who read Walden as the mostly falsified account of a hypocrite forget that this hypocrite called us to work for a justice beyond token charity. Schulz offers an oversimplified reading of a complicated life, but worse, she dismisses one of the best resources we have for thinking about a far more important question: what does true philanthropy—love of our fellows—call us to do with our lives and for our communities?