Although he conducted his great experiment to prove this theory in 1845, could we survive today on Thoreau’s base necessities and would we be happier if we did? In his book Walden, Thoreau describes life in a home that he built himself at Walden Pond, where he remained for two years and two months, away from the luxuries of civilization. Thoreau hoped to prove in order to get more out of life we needed less.
One can agree that physical survival is dependent on Thoreau’s base necessities. However, to survive emotionally, to be happy, and to reach “self-actualization” as defined in “Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”, more is required. There are deep primal needs that were not addressed such as companionship, competition, and the need for comfort. By the time you finish reading this essay I will convince you why Thoreau’s “Walden” experiment is a rough draft of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” theory published in 1943.
Abraham Maslow expanded on Thoreau’s idea of what it is that a human being needs to be happy and attain self-actualization. He created a hierarchy of needs commonly represented in a pyramid structure. The base of the pyramid represents physiological needs such as breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion. This was the level Thoreau also believed would be all that was necessary for an individual’s happiness. While it is true that this baser level of needs must be satisfied to progress toward happiness and self actualization, human beings are complex creatures and more is required.
Above the physical needs in Maslow’s pyramid are needs for safety which include security of body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, and property. Once the needs of safety are satisfied then the next level of the pyramid represents needs of love and belonging. They include friendship, family, and sexual intimacy. Above the needs of love and belonging are the needs of esteem. This level includes self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect towards others, and respect by others.
According to Maslow in order to advance to a next higher level in the pyramid one must first satisfy the need of the bottom levels, until you get o the top of the pyramid, where an individual can achieve self-actualization. This level includes morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts. Maslow further theorized that deficiencies in any of these baser needs caused an individual to return to the section of needs on the pyramid that had to be satisfied before self-actualization could continue. No matter how civilized we believe ourselves to be we are really just clever animals or “brute creations” as Thoreau puts it.
To the bison of the prairie it is a few inches of palatable grass, with water to drink; unless he seeks the shelter of the forest or the mountain’s shadow. None of the brute creation require more than Food and Shelter. ” (Thoreau, 11)[iii] What Thoreau does not mention is that even in nature there are more needs than this. The bison also requires companionship from its fellow bison and the security of family. The bison have their own pecking order in which every bison have a place. The warmth and proximity of fellow bison in the heard provides “heat” to the bison and protection from predators.
While true that the bison will occasionally wander away from the heard in search of food, it never strays too far, which would put itself in a situation of danger and leave itself open for attack. Man is no different. Humans also require the “heat” of others to be truly happy, the warm friendly smile of a good friend, the sultry, incandescence of a passionate lover and the sweltering love of a child, which all serve to ignite the fire in our souls. Although humans have no natural predators we are our own enemy and therefore create herds or families to protect ourselves from ourselves in the shelter of love and nurturing.
Thoreau himself left Walden Pond several times in need of the companionship of others Evolution increased the size of our frontal lobes and made us the clever animals we are. It is this increase in our capacity for knowledge along with the drive for survival which fuels the need to become better that the animal next to us. It allows us to use our cleverness to create new and better ways of doing things. This innate propensity for creativity makes society better as a whole. Inventing new industrious ways to make work easier makes it easier to compete.
While anyone can agree with Thoreau that any individuals are lost in the so called rat race of society it is only because the cheese that moves humankind through the maze is the wrong motivator. When I refer to the rat race I mean people’s drive to work to get money to buy things to be better than the neighbor next to him. Thoreau believed the cheese in the maze of life for humans is monetary gain and believed as a society we should instead seek to become self actualized. However his experiment had little impact because just as it was in 1845 when Thoreau conducted his experiment, in today’s society people go to school to gain knowledge in order to make more money.
Without employing the radical steps Thoreau took, there needs to be a shift in society aimed at gaining knowledge to better mankind as a whole, to increase comfort, and to learn the secrets that are out there in the ether of space. Unfortunately at this time there is no greater motivator for society than the almighty dollar. Therefore the greatest flaw of our society is not ascribing to motivators that provide the true comforts of life but instead to become enslaved by the idea that only money has value.
If one were to have Thoreau in front of him, to engage in dialogue, and brought up the point that we have made advances in many fields to increase comfort. We could cite such examples as science and medicine. We could argue that these advances produced life saving remedies such as penicillin to treat illness. Thoreau’s response would surely be that the body would not need penicillin if we did not use it and would eventually adapt to the sickness curing itself. However, some sicknesses evolve to remain viable predators against the organisms they use to proliferate.
We are not the only “clever animals” out there, we are also not the only ones who use technology to increase our comfort. Some animals such as the Chimpanzee have made their own advancements in the field of medicine. Because of their inability to create fire they are exposed to parasites in stagnant unpurified water and uncooked food. They combat disease by eating the Trichrome Plant also known as Veronia Amygdalina, which although taste unpleasant to them, evident in the facial expressions they make when eating the plant, they force themselves to eat it regardless of its aversion.
As the plant passes through their digestive tracts the sharp tiny hooks or Trichromes latch on to the intestinal parasites which exit with the chimpanzee’s excrement. [iv] Would the chimpanzee be able to live with the intestinal parasites? Yes! But it creates discomfort and comfort is a need of any society. I am by no means saying that Thoreau is incorrect; I am asserting that his experiment was incomplete. I direct you to the theory Maslow put forward as it offers deeper insight into the needs of man. We have evolved past our primitive form but not our primitive needs.
In order to attain self actualization one must be willing to embrace technology. To do this we can’t all just run off alone into the woods and live off the land. Even the Amish, who shun “Modern” technology, ascribe to some degree of technology, live in groups and situate themselves to be comfortable. There is a “need” for each other because we sustain each other. Also, we are only half of a whole. Man needs woman because couples produce children who mature to become adults. It’s a cycle necessary for reproduction that perpetuates the species and moves us forward.
The feeling of discomfort is an indicator that something is wrong this is why you feel pain if you cut your finger. The desire to be comfortable is a need, so society’s modern comforts are indeed a necessity. What needs to change is not our drive of working to gain and be comfortable, but instead the idea of what is valuable and what can be gained. If instead we all saw the betterment of mankind as the major issue then we could all truly be happy. A “Star Trek. ” society, if you will, in which there is no currency yet all can live in lavish comforts. Ultimately the quest for knowledge of the universe would be the true goal.