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Pin- and pencil-making in the twenty-first century.

The division of labor, the undermining of democracy, and Native American lessons in civic virtue.


1: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Adam Smith

HEIRS OF THE agricultural, industrial, and digital revolutions, we are a society of hyper-specialists. Through occupational specialization we have achieved marvels. But while the complexity of the great work grows, are we somehow diminished as individuals?

RWEmRalph Waldo Emerson thought so. Though never in his dreams did he imagine the existence of such a creature as a computer support technician, a travel agent, or a hedge fund manager, already in 1837 Emerson had qualms about occupational specialization. That year, to an audience of college graduates destined for careers in law, divinity, commerce, schoolteaching, he recounted an “old fable” of the One Man who encompasses all particular men. “You must take the whole society to find the whole man,” he told them. “Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier.”

According to Emerson, by the nineteenth century the social functions had been so atomized, and spread so diffusely, that the One Man could not be reconstituted. The result was distortion and depravity. “The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.” 1

asmithThe counterpoint to Emerson’s dour view of the division of labor, of course, is Book 1 of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published some 60 years earlier. Smith argued that specialization drives industry to new heights of efficiency. His famous example is the pin-making trade:

“One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten it is another.”2

Smith observed that division of labor permits ten men to produce forty-eight thousand pins in a day, while each on his own could probably produce no more than twenty. “The division of labor, by reducing every man’s business to a simple operation, and by making this operation the sole employment of his life, necessarily increases very much the dexterity of the workman.”3

Division of labor increases the worker’s dexterity at a single task, but at what cost to the whole person? Karl Marx had an answer. Such industrial advances “mutilate the laborer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine.”4 For Marx, this was a throwaway metaphor. For Emerson, the imagery of man sinking into his tools is central, and he extends it beyond industry to all professions:

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney a statute-book; the mechanic a machine; the sailor a rope of the ship.

Adam Smith’s pin manufacturer becomes a pinhead. Though division of labor increases the pace of production, it is dehumanizing.

BY THIS LOGIC, Adam Smith’s pin manufacturer becomes a pinhead. Though division of labor increases the pace of production, it is dehumanizing. Repetitive motion causes physical debilitation, as unused muscles atrophy. In the same way, a life whose “sole employment” is a simple manual operation–or even a single occupation, in Emerson’s opinion–is a life at risk of spiritual debilitation and spiritual atrophy.

We thus have two poles in the debate over the division of labor in modern society, the enthusiasm of Smith and the regret of Emerson. As it happens, the positions taken by each of these men’s ideas are self-serving and problematic in their own way.

Some improvements in the industrial process, Smith notes, are made by “those who are called philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do anything, but to observe everything; and who, upon that account, are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects. In the progress of society, philosophy or speculation becomes, like every other employment, the principal or sole trade and occupation of a particular class of citizens”5—a class that would include Smith himself. What is curious about this example is that it undermines several of his own arguments in favour of division of labor. According to Smith, workmen who shift from one task to another during the day, rather than sticking with a single task, lose time and lose their focus; he says that variety makes men “slothful and lazy.”6 This flies in the face of common experience, of course: it is monotony, not variety, that causes a person to lose focus. Smith surely understood the power of variety: as a philosopher he was endlessly fascinated by the variety of economic phenomena and their interconnections, from the minutiae of the pin-making profession to the grand shape of the history of money and trade. In his myriad pursuits he was anything but slothful; on the contrary, he was prolific.


Pin-making, from Diderot. (wiki)

Another of Smith’s arguments is that workmen who focus on a particular task are most likely to be able to come up with better and faster ways of performing the task: “Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things.”7 By Smith’s own admission, however, a mind (like his own) that is “dissipated among a great variety of things” is precisely the kind of mind that is capable of making fresh connections and associations that lead to innovation. Smith sees the industrial economy as a machine, and he sees himself as hovering over it. Inside the machine, a workman’s proper role is to focus as narrowly as possible on a single task. Outside the machine, the role of the philosopher is to think in the broadest terms possible. It is disingenuous of Smith to consider the philosopher’s “trade” just another occupation, and at the same time to deny to other occupations the broad scope enjoyed by the philosopher.

Emerson runs into a similarly self-serving paradox when he tries to argue a way out of the pessimistic vision of the Partial Man. He would have us transcend our specialized roles and partial personhood. But how? The fable continues:

In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.

In this view of him [the scholar], as Man Thinking, the theory of his office is contained. Him Nature solicits with all her placid, all her monitory pictures; him the past instructs; him the future invites. Is not indeed every man a student, and do not all things exist for the student’s behoof? And, finally, is not the true scholar the only true master?

The scholar is the “delegated intellect” of the Whole Man, just as the farmer, mechanic and sailor each have their separate delegated functions. Yet Emerson can’t resist calling the scholar the “only true master,” elevating the intellectual function above the rest and claiming that every man is a scholar-in-the-making. The scholar transcends the scheme, and we should not be surprised, for it is his voice that articulates the scheme.

We are left with unease about occupational specialization. Smith’s own living example of excellence as a generalist undermines his economic arguments for division of labor. Emerson’s attempt to salvage some spiritual dignity for the partial and divided modern industrial man seems lame and weak, blinded by the narrowness of his own particular specialized calling. The unease has another valence as well: the problem of fitness for civic life and self-government. This problem of moral fitness for self-government is an issue that was dear to Adam Smith’s heart, and it is curious that he did not draw conclusions that might seem self-evident to us today.

The business of the trader, merchant, and shopkeeper cultivates industry and frugality, temperance, and at least a simulacrum of goodwill toward one’s fellow man.

THOUGH WE REMEMBER Smith primarily as the father of modern economics, the occupational role of economist had not yet been invented. Smith saw himself primarily as a moral philosopher. His arguments in favor of policies that encourage trade and commerce were based not only on the technical and social benefits the burgeoning entrepreneurial class was likely to achieve, but also for the moral qualities that commerce engenders in its practitioners. The business of the trader, merchant, and shopkeeper cultivates industry and frugality, temperance, and at least a simulacrum of goodwill toward one’s fellow man. Business culture’s virtues are a big step up from the benighted world of feudalism and guilds.

But Smith was perfectly aware that the business of buying and selling has its dark side as well. It promotes avarice and envy. It rewards insidious forms of lying and cheating (exaggerated product claims, laying a finger on the scales, etc.). It cultivates a short-sighted self-centeredness, a desire to beat or cheat one’s neighbor, that is the antithesis of civic virtue. A society that lived primarily by commercial values, Smith understood, would quickly become dysfunctional. But he did not lose sleep over it. As Jerry Z. Muller has pointed out,8 Smith had faith that society could be insulated from the corrosive effects of business culture. He envisioned a world where policy-making would be in the hands of an elite class of educated gentlemen committed to an entirely different code, the classical ideals of honor, moral rectitude and patriotism—“the wise and the virtuous,” as Smith called them, who necessarily constituted a “small party.”

Smith lived at a historical moment where such a pipe dream could be entertained. As Scotland was merging with England and making the leap from a semi-literate backwater to an economic powerhouse, the small educated Scottish cultural elite enjoyed social pre-eminence, generous patronage, and a significant voice in policy-making. But the whole of Britain was soon to become a “nation of shopkeepers,” with commercial interests firmly entrenched.

It is easy for us to see that today we live in the dystopia that Smith thought could be avoided.

It is easy for us to see that today we live in the dystopia that Smith thought could be avoided. “Greed is good” is considered by many to be an acceptable aphorism, and many mistake the cinematic villain who uttered the line for a hero. Lying and cheating are endemic not only in the corporate world but at the highest levels of government. Politics is largely interest-based, and it is seen as perfectly normal for legislators to seek to enrich themselves, their sponsors, and their constituents. And of course the franchise in Western-style democracies was gradually extended beyond the entrepreneurial classes to the laboring classes as well, those who produce the commodities the merchants buy and sell—the pin straighteners and pin grinders of the world, whose outlook was even narrower, who had left their parents’ farms and workshops to take up newly created occupational categories that (as Emerson argued) degraded them as human beings—whose preparation for civic life during waking hours in the workplace consisted merely of following directions (or, at most, rebelling occasionally).

We are so accustomed to this state of affairs that there is a certain amount of novelty in viewing it from the point of view of Smith or Emerson—not simply as the way things are, but as a problem to be avoided or remedied. Smith’s belief that civic virtue would be preserved by a governing cultural elite turned out to be mistaken, and frankly unpalatable in a democratic age. But what about Emerson’s mythico-poetic resolution? If, as Emerson suggests, we once lived in a Golden Age of wholeness, what constituted that wholeness and how might it be reconstructed?

Emerson does not give a source for his “old fable.” After his death, his son Edward suggested that the fable may have derived from Plato’s Symposium and Plutarch’s essay “On Brotherly Love.” In the Symposium, Plato introduces a myth, according to which human beings were once perfect spheres. Having been cleaved in two and then assuming our current form, today we wander about incomplete, the longing we know as love being the instinct to reunite. Plutarch, for his part, points to the harmonious pairing of organs like hands, feet, eyes, ears, and nostrils, and especially the remarkable coordination made possible by Nature’s division of the hand into “many and unequal fingers,” as models of social cooperation.


Empedocles, by Cunego after Wellcome. 1785 (via wiki.)

ANOTHER INSPIRATION FOR Emerson’s “old fable,” literary critic Sacvan Bercovich has suggested, may have been Empedocles, who describes a mythical past when all was united by Love, followed by an age when all was scattered and divided by Strife. In the latter condition, “many heads sprung up without necks and arms wandered bare and bereft of shoulders.” Empedocles taught that the chaos was partly (but not completely) remedied when organs “wandered” together to produce man’s frame.9

We might also recall Aesop’s fable of the human body. The hands, mouth, and other organs, resenting the sloth of the stomach, resolved to reform it by starving it into submission—with disastrous results to themselves. Livy recounts that when the common people of Rome were fed up with the patricians and seceded, camping on a hill outside the city, Menenius Agrippa used this story to convince them of their folly and induce them to return.

The Native peoples of eastern North America lived in societies with almost no division of social roles.

Emerson may have had any number of these ancient sources in mind when he produced his fable. But plausible exemplars of the One Man existed much closer to home as well. The Native peoples of eastern North America lived in societies with almost no division of social roles. Work was divided by sex and somewhat by age, and some individuals become healers, but that was about as far as specialization went. All members of native societies participated in feeding themselves and their communities, in politics, in war, in religion, in dance and worship. The significance of this was not lost on Emerson: “Compare the Indian with his plenitude of power and his courage and cheer, and equality to all his duties,” he wrote in another essay, “with the emaciated broken-hearted pin or buckle or stocking-maker, more helpless the further the division [of labor] is carried.”10

As hunters and warriors, the natives did not sink into becoming their tomahawks, unaware of the dignity of their work. They became Man Hunting and Man Warmaking, exercising every faculty in pursuit of personal honour and the welfare of the tribe. In handicraft, song, and dance, they honoured and communed with the world of ancestors and spirits. Even the humble tasks of sowing and reaping had a dignity bound up in the physical and spiritual sustenance of the tribe.

lohatantpEarly European explorers remarked on the dignity of native peoples. One of the earliest European ethnographers in the New World, the French adventurer Baron de Lahontan, lived with the Huron Indians over a period of eleven years. In his writings he presented a native’s explanation of the difference between his own way of life and that of the European: “We are born free and united brothers, each as much a great lord as the other, while you are all the slaves of one sole man . . . I am the master of my body, I dispose of myself, I do what I wish, I am the first and last of my Nation . . . subject only to the great Spirit.”11

Among the Hurons, the Iroquois, the Cherokees, and other Native societies, virtually every man was a warrior and every warrior had a say in the affairs of the clan, village, and tribe. The women too, who were responsible for agriculture and in some cases responsible for managing communal stores, had their own group decision-making processes. They elected their own leaders, or selected men to represent the clans in council. The democratic confederacy of the Iroquois, in particular, was studied and admired by Benjamin Franklin and others, and elements of Iroquois political philosophy were incorporated into founding documents of the new English-speaking republic.12

Ironically, it would appear to have been the anti-democratic elements of Native character that fitted them for self-government…Native Americans tended to see themselves as natural aristocrats.

Ironically, it would appear to have been the anti-democratic elements of Native character that fitted them for self-government. That is, as the Lahontan quotation above suggests, Native Americans tended to see themselves as natural aristocrats. The men in particular constituted a leisure class, in many societies disdaining agriculture as women’s work. Their primary diversions were war, hunting, and politics. This led them to identify primarily with European aristocracy, and visiting European aristocrats like Lahontan and Alexis de Tocqueville concurred. Tocqueville wrote that “war and hunting are the only pursuits which appear to him worthy to be the occupations of a man. The Indian, in the dreary solitudes of his woods, cherishes the same ideas, the same opinions as the noble of the Middle Ages in his castle, and he only requires to become a conqueror to complete the resemblance.”13

What fitted Natives for affairs of state was not unlike what fitted Smith’s ideal cultured European gentleman: the courage, fortitude, and patriotism of the warrior (patriotism in the sense of willingness to lay one’s life on the line for the welfare of the community or nation); an upbringing that gave one a broad outlook and a familiarity with civic issues and roles; and a sense of dignity.

DIGNITY WAS CENTRAL to the ethos of both the Native and European aristocrat. It led the Native aristocrat to resist engaging in menial occupations. From the days of Columbus (and in spite of Columbus’s predictions after his first voyage), European planters found that Indians made poor plantation slaves. They were likely to run away or waste away, unable to accept an indignity that African captives and European indentured servants could adjust to. The proud One Man could not face the shock of living as a mere scythe or hammer. Native resistance to what Europeans think of as “work” has persisted across generations. In the twentieth century, John Lame Deer expressed it thus: “I was like many full-bloods. I didn’t want to work in an office or a factory. I thought myself too good for that, not because I was stuck up, but because any human being is too good for that kind of no-life, even white people.” 14 Tocqueville wrote that the Indian “repels every advance of civilization, less perhaps from the hatred which he entertains for it, than from a dread of resembling the Europeans…. [He] considers the cares of industry and labor as degrading occupations…. not merely as an evil, but as a disgrace.”15 Again, there are parallels with the stereotyped European aristocrat, who when impoverished would take up a trade only with great reluctance, and might choose instead to live hungry in a garret.

‘Viewing history as a triumph of democracy and the common man, we have tended to view the airs of European aristocracy with contempt.’

Through a “whiggish” lens, viewing history as a triumph of democracy and the common man, we have tended to view the airs of European aristocracy with contempt. And not without good reason. Traced back in history, most aristocratic classes owe their ascendency to invasion, expropriation, and exploitation. Barbarian Vikings overran Normandy and then established themselves in England, where they wrested power from earlier Germanic pretenders. Germanic Franks subjugated Romanized Celtic Gauls, and from the peasant uprisings of the fourteenth century to the Revolution of 1789, ancient hostilities and resentments in France were frequently renewed. On the collapse of Rome, the wealthy “one percent” who had siphoned the treasure of many nations initiated the system of patronage and servitude that became European feudalism. Citizens of many an ancient Greek polis, themselves the descendants of invaders, avidly conquered and enslaved one another as well as foreigners.

Simply put, any aristocratic pretension of a “right to rule” is untenable on historical grounds. Aristocrats were usurpers. But what is more of interest here is the question of fitness to rule. If we trace the lineage of European aristocratic classes back far enough, we generally go back to the Eurasian steppe, where we find tribes of Teutons, Slavs, Turks, Scythians, Magyars, Huns, etc., living egalitarian nomadic lifestyles that bear comparison with those of woodland and plains Indians of North America. There are differences, of course, the most glaring of which is the presence of the horse and other domesticated animals on the Eurasian steppe (a difference that was made up somewhat when such animals were introduced to North America in the sixteenth century), but in terms of social/political structure and ethos, it is the similarities that are striking.

In The Wandering God, Morris Berman describes nomadic societies of Eurasia and Africa as having egalitarian social structures and loose, flexible political structures. Social norms of mutual aid prevent disparities in wealth from becoming pronounced. If hierarchy is introduced for a specific purpose such as war-making, it quickly disintegrates when the need has passed. Berman quotes Ernest Gellner’s description of ancient Scythian society as one in which “every man was a shepherd, bard, soldier, and senator.”16 This finds echoes in the descriptions of Lahontan and other European explorers of the native societies they encountered in North America. Berman adds that Eurasian and African nomads are not nomads by accident or mere habit—they have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the attractions and dangers of settled life, and they persist in their ways because they choose it, despite its hardships, for the independence, freedom, and dignity it offers. Independence, freedom, and dignity, the warrior ethos, and even mutual aid are not just characteristic of nomadic life, they constitute an ideology of nomadic life. And when, every so often, over the course of history, nomads have chosen to merge with settled societies on their own terms—not merely to plunder, but to overrun and rule—they have brought something of the ethos of the steppe with them.

In a generalized way, we can say that across continents and eras, fitness to rule, to participate in government and self-government, has been associated with a fairly consistent set of aristocratic virtues. And across continents and eras, the general consensus has been that cultivation of those aristocratic virtues is inconsistent with the soul-deadening labor and money-grubbing commerce that constitute everyday life in civilized societies.

‘The modern democratic age would seem to be one that has lost the pretension of an Emersonian center. No Whole Men stand at the levers of power…’

To return to Smith’s dilemma, stated earlier: Today we live in a world where civilized society has thrown off aristocratic ruling classes. We have ruling classes, to be sure, who govern in the name of the people and often in the interest of the wealthy absentee-owners of most of the world’s assets. But neither the rulers nor the leisure class are cultivated aristocrats with a warrior ethos, they are (respectively) merely hustlers like the rest of us, or self-absorbed consumers like the rest only writ large. The modern democratic age would seem to be one that has lost the pretension of an Emersonian center. No Whole Men stand at the levers of power, no one class has both the ambition and the power to scan the horizon and mind the tiller. Only partial men run around amidship–sailors who mind individual ropes and sails, and who sink into their occupations so deeply that they become the ropes and sails themselves. The ship of state has essentially become an unmanned ghost ship.

That might seem unnecessarily melodramatic. Although the modern democratic experiment has had its ups and downs, it would be presumptuous to declare it has already failed, and it would be foolish to look back to earlier eras of feudalism and aristocratic privilege as to a golden age. Neither of those is my intention. But I propose that aristocratic virtue, the wholeness of the One Man, has retained a hold on our imagination, and that those who have thought deeply about democracy and self-government have tried in various ways to import or impute those virtues into or onto the modern age—and that the North American native, the Whole Man whose aristocratic virtues shine temptingly across a deep cultural chasm, has been a constant if unacknowledged source of inspiration. I would draw our attention in particular to the work of Henry David Thoreau and Immanuel Kant.

2: Henry David Thoreau and Immanuel Kant

thoreauTHOREAU WAS BORN to a family of poor gentry who, by running a boarding house and manufacturing pencils, managed to scrape together the funds to send their most bookish child to college. Thoreau had a mechanical talent, and introduced a number of innovations in the pencil-manufacturing trade. He perfected a formula for a non-greasy pencil lead (based on information about recent German advances he found in an encyclopedia in the Harvard library). He figured out how to bore and fill a long, thin hole in a wooden pencil shaft so it would no longer be necessary to split the pencil body in two and glue it back together, and he invented a hand-powered machine to blow graphite dust in a tall column and separate the coarse from the fine particles. He and his father developed a series of pencil types graded according to the hardness of the graphite mixture, and marketed the world’s first “No. 2” pencil. (Like the young boy Smith describes in Wealth of Nations, who is supposed to have developed a better way of managing the valve of a steam engine so he would have more time to run and play, Thoreau may have been motivated to innovate by a desire for leisure. But he was hardly focused on one task, which was the point of Smith’s example. Like Smith himself, Thoreau the pencil manufacturer owed insight and breakthroughs to his wide-ranging curiosity and esoteric reading. It is interesting to note as well that the family’s pencil-making enterprise had its origins in the fortuitous discovery by Henry David’s vagabond uncle Charles of a deposit of plumbago during his ramblings in New Hampshire. Score another point for dissipated attention.)

Young Henry knew pencils so well that, as Emerson reports, he could reach into a box and pick them up a dozen at a time by feel.17 Despite his talents and promise as a craftsman, Thoreau was bitten by the bug of Transcendentalism while at Harvard—Emerson’s graduation speech, quoted at the beginning of this essay, may have been the coup de grace–and as a result he gave up any ambition of seriously applying himself to his father’s trade. He quit, rather than risk becoming a pencil himself. “How can I communicate with the gods who am a pencil-maker on the earth,” he wondered, “and not be insane?”18 For years he resisted the temptation to take up any trade at all. Nathaniel Hawthorne recalled that he “seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men—an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood.”19

William Ellery Channing reports that during Thoreau’s final illness he rambled semi-coherently about “moose” and “Indian”…

With his Indian-like freedom, the young philosopher devoted himself to the study of nature and the cultivation of virtue. And in both of these pursuits, Thoreau’s fascination with Native ways lit his path like a phosphorescent beacon. He read hundreds of books on native history, culture, language, and woodcraft and filled thousands of notebook pages with copied extracts. He sought out opportunities to see, meet, and learn from living Indians in Massachusetts, Maine, and Minnesota. His friend, the poet William Ellery Channing, reports that during Thoreau’s final illness he rambled semi-coherently about “moose” and “Indian,” and that “whether from his long and unwearied studies of the Indian character, or from his own nature, he had a love for the fields and woods and wild creatures that never deserted him. . . . This Norman boy with the blue eyes and brown hair, held the Indian’s creed, and believed in the essential worth and integrity of plant and animal.”20

That Thoreau took inspiration and sought instruction from Native sources in his nature study is hardly a surprise. The Native influence on his views of civic virtue and the state, though less well appreciated, are also significant.

Thoreau wished to be useful to his own society. He described his ambition with a variant on Emerson’s fable of the divided One Man:

The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. . . . In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. . . . Others . . . serve the State chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part . . . A wise man will only be useful as a man.21

In other words, he sought to perform the services Smith assigned to the elite corps of educated and philosophical gentlemen: to hold himself and the entire society up to a higher moral standard. But where Smith was given an official salaried post for his pains, Thoreau was not. “My townsmen would not after all admit me into the list of town officers, nor make my place a sinecure with a moderate allowance.” So with good humor he continued on as a “reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation”—his personal diary, out of which grew the lectures and essays for which he is now remembered and beloved.

A PREREQUISITE TO the life of unpaid philosophical service, therefore, was to “simplify, simplify,” so as to avoid to the greatest extent possible the necessity of engaging in work that would draw one away from one’s Emersonian center. “The laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men,” he wrote. The laborer’s coarse fingers, “from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much” to pluck life’s “finer fruits . . . . He has no time to be any thing but a machine.”22 When the railroad was built right along the edge of Walden Pond, Thoreau saw Irish laborers used up like the wooden ties they laid, their life’s energy sacrificed for the sake of the machine. In that dissipation and degradation of life, he perceived an offence against human dignity.

The waste of life among the commercial class who ran the show was, if anything, even worse. How can a commercial farmer “live a man’s life,” he wondered, when burdened under the weight of houses, barns, cattle, farming tools, and sixty acres of dirt, all of which require his care and attention?23 The merchant will spend the better part of his waking life in anxiety and discomfort at the offices and in sailing vessels, merely to have the leisure to do what he pleases—what Thoreau does every day—when he retires. And even the so-called successful businessman was still always in moral jeopardy, “sold to the institution which makes him rich.”24

The answer was to economize, simplify one’s life, and reduce one’s needs to a bare minimum, as John Lame Deer described reducing his needs to a bare minimum in the twentieth century to avoid the necessity of factory and office work. Thoreau understood as well as Hawthorne that this, his own strategy, was a characteristic Native strategy. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he quotes minutes from the sessions of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony’s General Court, indicating that Indian converts to Christianity thought it “easy” to promise observance of a day of rest on Sunday, for they “have not much to do on any day”25. He speaks approvingly of Natives’ propensity to do much with little (e.g., to build simple shelters that outperform those of white settlements), and to make do with even less. He admiringly records that Joseph Polis, the Penobscot guide he befriended on his third and final trip to the Maine woods, was accustomed to trekking into the woods for a season of hunting with nothing but “gun and ammunition, axe and blankets, hard bread and pork,” and the clothes on his back.26 To a correspondent, he asks rhetorically: “Who would [not] choose rather the simple grandeur of savage life for the solid leisure it affords?”27

Thoreau entertained a conceit that Natives, not being “philosophical” like himself, valued and preserved their leisure out of sheer laziness…

Thoreau entertained a conceit that Natives, not being “philosophical” like himself, valued and preserved their leisure out of sheer laziness (much as his own uncomprehending neighbors considered him nothing more than an idle and lazy dropout—an “educated Indian” who merely wanted “to read Plato in his wigwam.”28) But Thoreau had many moments of admiration for the Natives as well. “You would say that they had a genius for diplomacy as well as for war,” he wrote, reflecting on his reading of Native history. An elderly Native woman, he declared to his journal, was “one of the nobility of the land.”29 He had especial admiration for Polis, the Native he personally knew best. He recounts the story of Polis protecting the village school from being torn down by rallying young men to don war-paint and obstruct another faction of the tribe, led by the local priest, confident that the priest would back down before blood was spilt. And he won; the school was saved. Thoreau thought that this episode “showed a good deal of tact in him, to seize this occasion and take his stand on it; proving how well he understood those with whom he had to deal.”30 Polis was a man of principle, action, and courage, who faced down bears and starvation in the woods, represented his people in the white man’s world, and rose to the top of the progressive faction in the cutthroat politics of his own tribe.31

John BrownTHOREAU ASPIRED TO the same sort of moral heroism. He used his coveted independence not to ignore politics and current events (despite his protestations that nothing in the newspaper was worth reading about), but as a fixed point from which to jam the machinery of state as needed, to throw his small weight at the great problems of the day. He refused to pay a tax that supported slavery and an unjust war, and gladly went to jail to drive the protest home. When no one would defend militant abolitionist John Brown in the court of public opinion after Brown’s botched anti-slavery crusade, Thoreau gave an impassioned defense—and he rang the town bell to announce the lecture himself, in defiance of the town fathers’ orders. He shuttled escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad, and shuttled a “most-wanted” Brown conspirator as well—possibly using physical force to get the hysterical young man into the carriage and on the train to Canada.

Thoreau was not a warrior who took up arms, like Brown or the younger men who enlisted in the Union army when Thoreau lay dying of tuberculosis, or even like Polis in the village scuffle over the school building. But he shared the ethos of a warrior in that he was ready to take a stand for the greater good as he saw it, and to plant his body in harm’s way if necessary. “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine,” was his philosophy.32 His coveted “Indian” leisure and independence served him well in this regard, on multiple levels. With no timecard to punch and no cow to milk, he had the freedom to act at the drop of a hat (or at the pick-up of a shoe from the cobbler, in the case of his famous impromptu night in jail). With no fear of offending employer or clients, he was free to take loud and unpopular stands. Most importantly, by cultivating his independence he maintained the unencumbered conscience he prized above all else, a conscience that was as clear and deep and transparent as a pond with no inlet. With such a conscience for a compass he could take his moral bearings with accuracy, precision, and confidence; he could easily pick out the distant sound of the “different drummer” he chose to march to.

How would Thoreau remedy the soul-deadening mediocrity of the social machine? With what would he replace it?

Thoreau’s example is unquestionably admirable. And yet, one wonders if his fastidious social critique was not as self-serving as Smith’s or Emerson’s. How would Thoreau remedy the soul-deadening mediocrity of the social machine? With what would he replace it? Could his own lifestyle of conscience and asceticism be adopted generally? It was said of Gandhi, Thoreau’s pupil in matters of civil disobedience, that it took a good deal of money to keep him in poverty. What was true of the pupil was also true of the master. Carefree, property-less Thoreau could not have accomplished what he did without friends and family carrying their own houses and barns on their back, and carrying him as well. It is hard to imagine Thoreau’s career without a patron like Emerson, willing and able to indulge his fancy for “independent” living on Emerson’s woodlot at Walden Pond, or without the parents who worked hard in their cottage industry to provide him with the secure room and board he counted on for much of the rest his life. (It is possible he paid for his lodging, but even so we can be sure his landlord was unusually indulgent.) As for the matter of conscience, the flouting of society’s rules, imagine the cacophony of a world marching to the tune of seven billion drummers: the chaos of people disobeying every rule they disagree with, the mass famine of a society that conducts its business the way Thoreau cultivated his bean field. (Smith was happy to assign conscience to members of a socially elite stratum that could afford noblesse oblige, but Thoreau was a democrat to the core—his friends and neighbors knew full well, to their discomfort and annoyance, that he judged them by the same standards by which he judged himself.) The fact remains that however much we admire Thoreau, it is simply not possible for all of us to follow him through the eye of the needle. If every cog jammed the machine at will there would be no machine left to speak of, and civil disobedience itself would have no moral value or force. Thoreau’s maxim of civil disobedience was not, in other words, one that could be adopted, in Kant’s parlance, as a universal principle binding on all mankind.

ikantKANT IS THE other thinker whose ideas I would like to explore. Kant lived, taught philosophy, and more or less invented the modern world as we know it in the town of Königsberg on the Baltic Sea. It was Kant who, in response to a magazine competition on the question “What is Enlightenment?,” responded with an essay that has become a central pillar of the eighteenth-century project of Enlightenment that we are still implementing today. Kant argued that Enlightenment is man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity into adulthood, his acceptance of the responsibilities of self-government. “Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men . . . gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians.” The mature man (and, by implication, woman) is the individual who claims what is already his or hers by right, the freedom and responsibility of governing him- or herself as a member of a polity. This is a path open to all, regardless of social station or occupation. Kant here lays the philosophical groundwork for the universal (adult) franchise that has now permeated almost every society on the globe, having been claimed via reform and revolution by lower classes, subordinated races, and women.

Ironically, the author of this progressive tract lived under one of the most rigid autocracies in the early modern world, the Prussia of Frederick the Great. So Kant’s essay is hedged carefully. It sets careful bounds to the right of self-government, in the form of a stark distinction between “public” life and “private” life.

According to Kant, in “private life” man is a cog in the machinery of society; in “public life” he can step back and critique the machine’s workings objectively.

People are morally obligated to conform to the laws and customs of the society they are born into, Kant argues, in the official roles they take on. Thus, in his capacity as a military officer, a military officer must carry out orders. In his capacity as a priest, a priest must teach the dogma and administer the sacraments of the Church. In his capacity as a citizen, the citizen is obliged to pay the government’s taxes and to obey its laws and commands. It is in their “free time,” off-duty, that the officer, priest, and citizen can consult their free consciences as mature adults and decide how the machinery of society could be improved, and then to express that opinion–say, to protest an unjust law or excessive tax or objectionable church doctrine. Kant, perhaps somewhat confusingly, calls a man’s official role in society his “private life” and his activities as free, enlightened individuals his “public life.”33 In “private life” he is a cog in the machinery of society; in “public life” he can step back and critique the machine’s workings objectively. To attempt to change society in “private” capacity—that is, through direct action as a cog in the machine, as Thoreau would do–would be tantamount to sabotage. Interference with the proper working of the social mechanism is immoral and criminal, and the social mechanism has courts, prisons, etc., to deal with such deviance. The immorality of lawlessness was to Kant self-evident, and he was convinced that even criminals could not feel otherwise, that the spark of divine Reason in them secretly enjoyed the aesthetic satisfaction of trial and punishment. (A generation later Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel went a step further and argued that criminals willed their own punishment.34 It can not be denied that Thoreau willed his own punishment when he was jailed for non-payment of the poll tax. He was furious that he was not allowed to remain in the jail after an anonymous sponsor paid the tax on his behalf.)

Several problems with Kant’s vision of society are evident. First, what if one’s “private life” was of the sweatshop variety and kept one in material poverty, illiterate, or otherwise precluded one from exercising one’s enlightened nature in “public life”? For that matter, what if one’s “private” duties as a cog in the machine were morally repulsive? Commentators have suggested that the capacity of German civil servants during World War II to carry out even the vilest orders without balking, simply because “orders are orders,” owes something to the sway of Kant’s precepts.35

Another problem with Kant’s postulated public/private distinction is a practical one—will the state recognize it?

In 1783 a ponytail-sporting preacher named Johann Heinrich Schulz published a book espousing determinism and thus denying human moral culpability. Kant wrote a review of the book, in which he attacked its central thesis. The moral dimension of human life, he asserted, is factual and cannot be argued away. The Prussian authorities went much farther: they branded Schulz an atheist and tried to expel him from the pulpit. Kant’s biographer reports that a progressive government minister succeeded in preserving Schulz in his post, at least for a while, by drawing the very Kantian distinction between “Schulz, the preacher (and thus official of the state) and Schulz, the public author. The two functions were quite distinct . . . . His public writings could not be used to impeach his qualifications as a preacher.”36

All well and good for Kant’s social theory, for a time. But the King’s censors did not honour the distinction between public and private life for long. In 1791 they reopened Schulz’s case, defrocked him, and punished those who argued for clemency by depriving them of three months’ salary.37

A final problem with Kant’s vision of enlightenment and society is of the same paradoxical, self-serving nature as those that plagued the other philosophers we have discussed in this essay. That is, where does Kant, the author himself, fit into the scheme? Is Kant philosophizing on his own “public” time, or in his “private” role as university professor? Here the terminological distinction between public and private breaks down. For a teacher dealing with social and moral issues, every “private” professional act is also a public one, as it involves stepping back and looking at the machinery of society as a whole–and even more so, as it involves writing and lecturing and thus shaping the opinions of others. Immanuel Kant set the wheels of a theoretical society in motion, and left himself conveniently outside it, or hovering above it. Just as the creative mind transcends matter, as the laws of time and space themselves transcend time and space, Kant-—architect and lawgiver of the Enlightened modern social machine—transcended his creation.

And yet, in spite of all its shortcomings, the reader may find that in Kant’s doctrine we have returned to what feels like solid ground. It is in Kant that Smith’s dilemma is (or appears to be) resolved: where Smith required a distinct class of “Whole Men” to govern, Kant has distributed their function and their virtues, by fiat as it were, to every individual regardless of class or occupation. He has partitioned us in two, and deputized every one of us as a partial Whole Man.

Our belief that people are naturally fit to govern themselves is an act of will, and if we will the belief hard enough, we manage to convince ourselves it is self-evident… But the fact remains that it is historically contingent.

We live in a world that has accepted Kant’s solution. We believe in the rightness of universal suffrage in the same way we believe in all human rights. Our belief that people are naturally fit to govern themselves is an act of will, and if we will the belief hard enough, we manage to convince ourselves it is self-evident. But the fact remains that it is historically contingent, an artifact of the modern era.

To delegate the function of a governing class to the masses is one thing. To impute the virtues of a governing class onto the masses is quite another matter, and here it takes concerted effort to make reality conform to doctrine. Public schools are the engines that turn children into citizens, citizens putatively armed with enough knowledge of history, art, music, grammar, science, mathematics, social studies, and gymnastics to be passible Whole Men and Whole Women, capable of taking a broad view and intelligently directing the affairs of a nation in the few waking hours that aren’t devoted to making a living.

If we go back to the early years of modern public or universal education, we see the absurd magnitude of the project discussed openly. J.G. Schlosser, a Prussian contemporary of Kant, argued that a general education is unnecessary, even inhumane, in a society that requires workers, farmers, artisans, bureaucrats:

The vocations of men are in most cases so incompatible with the all-around development of their faculties that I would almost say that one cannot start early enough to encourage the atrophy of two-thirds of those faculties; for most men are destined for vocations where they can not use them in later life. Why do you castrate oxen and colts when you prepare them for the yoke and the cart, yet wish to develop the totality of human powers in men similarly condemned to the yoke and cart? They will jump the furrow if you give them the wrong preparation, or kick against the trace until they die.38

Schlosser used such arguments to attack a progressive school, newly founded in 1774 in Dessau. Kant, meanwhile, was doing everything he could to support the school: raising money, praising it in print, and soliciting students.

Kant’s conviction in the rightness of expecting Everyman and Everywoman to take on the responsibilities of a part-time governing class, regardless of the difficulties involved in minimally training them for that role, flowed from his core belief in the inherent dignity of all persons. This belief in universal dignity was not one he had always held. It was impressed on him forcefully by his reading of the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which was for him a turning point, a revelation. As Kant himself tells it,

There was a time when I thought that [intellectual attainment] alone could constitute the honor of mankind, and I despised the rabble who knows nothing. Rousseau set me right. This blind prejudice vanishes; I learn to respect human nature, and I should consider myself far more useless than the common laborer if I did not believe that this view could give worth to all others to establish the rights of man.39

Among the many influences on Kant the person and Kant the philosopher, Rousseau was in a class by himself. The only time the legendarily punctual Kant ever missed his daily walk was when engrossed in Rousseau’s writing; and a portrait of the French apostle of natural liberty and equality was the only decoration on the wall of Kant’s austere study.

jjrousseauRousseau’s own inspiration for his doctrine of the inherent dignity of all persons, as is well-known, came in no small part from explorers’ and missionaries’ reports of the blessings and virtues of the “state of nature” found on the North American continent. Delisle de la Drevetière’s 1721 stageplay Arlequin Sauvage, which adapted themes from Lahontan’s writings, made a big impression on the young Rousseau. Violette, the young French heroine of the story, falls in love with a young Indian and in the end chooses to leave behind her own corrupt society for the freedom and dignity of “savage” life. Rousseau was so inspired by the play that he attempted an opera of his own, featuring Columbus’s attempts to enslave the noble savages he discovered—he later destroyed the music, but the libretto has been preserved.40

Kant did not share Rousseau’s enthusiasm for the “natural man” of the New World.

Kant did not share Rousseau’s enthusiasm for the “natural man” of the New World. Kant’s own extant comments on Native Americans, from his lectures on anthropology, are entirely and almost comically unflattering, focusing disproportionately on an alleged lack of sex drive. But the fact remains that the dignity, freedom, and autonomy of native peoples that so impressed early European explorers of North America, spun into theories of “natural man” by the philosophes, formed a crucial element of Kant’s social philosophy and the entire Enlightenment project.

WE HAVE INHERITED, then, two distinct answers to Smith’s dilemma of the disappearance of a class that is fit to rule in modern society. Kant says (by fiat) that aristocratic virtues are perfectly compatible with modern life and mass culture, and that Everyman and Everywoman are entirely capable of managing self-government on a part-time basis, or can be made capable via universal education. Thoreau says that aristocratic virtues go against the grain of modern life and must be painstakingly cultivated and heroically applied to rescue modern society from its own stupidity. Directly or indirectly, both find in the Native societies of North America’s eastern woodlands models of the aristocratic virtues they think modern democratic society requires.

Both Thoreau’s solution and Kant’s, the heroic and the prosaic, can be found in incipient form in Smith. We have already seen that Smith thought that the services of an elite corps of “the wise and the virtuous” would be required to keep modern society on the rails. In addition, Smith was a strong advocate of education for the laboring classes at a time when most of his countrymen were still illiterate. In a moment of extraordinary candor in Book V of the Wealth of Nations, he acknowledged that the laborer whose “whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations”—the hero of the pin factory in Book I, in other words—due to a lack of opportunities to exercise other faculties, “becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” Such a person is barely fit to carry out the ordinary duties of private life, and “of the great and extensive interests of the country his is altogether incapable of judging.” Hence a need for schools. Smith does not intend to train the common man for an active part in self-government, as Kant proposes, but he might at least acquire enough intelligence and good sense to resist superstitious fads and see through demagogues who would foment religious war and rebellion.

Kant’s insistence on the importance of universal education throws Emerson’s conceit that every man is a “scholar in the making” into a new light. In the civilized state, according to Kant—and Smith as well—it is by means of education, the training of the inner scholar, that some semblance of pre-modern wholeness is restored to the “mutilated and deformed”41 (Smith’s words) fragment of a man.

Tragically and ironically, government schooling was the last and greatest insult Euro-America offered to the Native societies it had dispossessed…

Tragically and ironically, government schooling was the last and greatest insult Euro-America offered to the Native societies it had dispossessed at the end of the nineteenth century, at least in the United States. At their lowest ebb demographically, politically, and culturally, descendants of the Whole Men who had provided Europe and the neo-Europes with inspiration for and living examples of their political and civic ideals were now being trained to be partial men and women, cogs in a machine, and told they should be grateful for that small dignity. “The Indian is DEAD in you,” one commencement speaker enthused. “Let all that is Indian within you die! . . . You cannot become truly American citizens, industrious, intelligent, cultured, civilized until the INDIAN within you is DEAD.”42

After decades of halting reform, today most Indian schools are under local community control and the most dreadful practices, documented in David Wallace Adams’ Education for Extinction, have been abolished. To a certain extent—the excerpt from John Lame Deer testifies to this—the sensibility of the Whole Man has persisted among twentieth- and twenty-first-century Indians living on reservation and in cities. But the root of that sensibility was in a pre-modern way of life without significant division of labor. In the modern world, descendants of Natives and Europeans alike can only grasp at the shadow or shell of it.

Brent Ranalli is a Boston-based policy professional, a scholar at the Ronin Institute, and co-editor of Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Yale University Press). His research on Henry David Thoreau’s interest in and emulation of Native American virtues was recognized with a 2012 Thoreau Society fellowship. He serves on the editorial advisory board of the Thoreau Society Bulletin and comments on current and ancient affairs at The Globalist.

An abbreviated version of this essay was presented at the Telos Institute’s 2016 conference on Ethics, Politics, and Modernity.

A lecture by Alan Macfarlane on Ernest Gellner is here.

Note: Minor editorial changes were made to this essay subsequent to publication.


  1. Emerson, “The American Scholar,” in Complete Works, I/82-84.
  2. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations Books I-III (1776; Penguin 1997), 110.
  3. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 112.
  4.  Karl Marx, Capital: An Abridged Edition, ed. David McLellan (1867; Oxford University Press, 1995), 361-362.
  5. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 115.
  6.  Smith, Wealth of Nations, 114.
  7.  Smith, Wealth of Nations, 114.
  8.  Muller, Adam Smith in His Time and Ours (Free Press of Macmillan, 1992), 166, citing Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments I.iii.2, 62.
  9. Sacvan Bercovich, “The Philosophical Background to the Fable of Emerson’s ‘American Scholar,’” Journal of the History of Ideas 28(1)123-128, 1967, 123-128. The quotes are Empedocles’ words in John Burnet’s translation, as found in Bercovich.
  10. Quoted in Robert Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (University of California, 1995), 471.
  11. As quoted in William Brandon, New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800 (Ohio University Press, 1986), 90.
  12. David A. Grinde and Bruce E. Johansen, Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy (UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 1991).
  13. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Appleton, 1899 {1835}), 370.
  14. John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions (Simon and Schuster, 1972), 50.
  15. Tocqueville, 362 and 370.
  16. Berman, The Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (SUNY Press, 2000), 175.
  17. Emerson, “Thoreau” in Complete Works, X/461.
  18. Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, ed. Carl F Hovde (Princeton, 1980), 194.
  19. As quoted in Walter Harding, Thoreau as Seen by His Contemporaries (Dover, 1989) 155.
  20. William Ellery Channing, Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist (C. E. Goodspeed, 1902) 20, 341.
  21. Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” Reform Papers, ed. Thomas F. Glick (Princeton, 1974), 66.
  22. Thoreau, Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton, 1971), 6.
  23. Thoreau, Walden, 5.
  24. Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”.
  25. As quoted in Thoreau, A Week, 82.
  26. Thoreau, The Maine Woods, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton, 1972), 201.
  27. Letter to Isaiah T. Williams, 1842, in Berg collection, quoted in Sherman Paul, The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration (Russell & Russell, 1971), 22.
  28. George Willis Cooke, “The Two Thoreaus,” The Independent, December 10, 1896.
  29. Thoreau, Journal, July 16, 1850.
  30. Thoreau, The Maine Woods. 293-94.
  31. See Fannie Hardy Eckstorm’s Old John Neptune and Other Maine Indian Shamans (Southworth-Anthoensen Press, 1945) for Penobscot politics and Polis’s place in it.
  32. Thoreau, Reform Papers, 73-74.
  33. John Christian Laursen. “The Subversive Kant: The Vocabulary of Public and Publicity,” What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Questions and Twentieth-Century Answers, ed. James Schmidt (University of California Press, 1996), 253-269.
  34. Karl Marx, letter in New-York Daily Tribune, 17-18 February 1853.
  35. e.g., Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press, 1994), 270.
  36. Manfred Kuehn, Kant: A Biography (Cambridge, 2001), 365.
  37. Kuehn, 365.
  38. Kuehn, 228.
  39. As quoted in Kuehn, 131-32.
  40. See chapter 7 of Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (Fawcett Columbine, 1988).
  41. Smith, quoted in Muller, 151.
  42. Quotation from David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction, 1995, 274.
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