Re: Philanthropy, Thoreau Got It Wrong



“Benjamin D. Maxham – Henry David Thoreau – Restored”

Dear Henry,


I’ve recently read your book Walden and would like to share my observations with you, if that’s alright. I’m sorry to hear that your cabin was torn down, reassembled, and ultimately dismantled not long after you left it. You’ll be pleased to know that the woods are still there, a new little hut has been put up in your memory, and Walden Pond is embroiled in controversy over whether the site should be preserved or allowed to be modified for commercial interests. Ironic, right? I know.

Let’s get down to the beans and woodchucks of why I’m writing. We both know that you’ve had a fair amount of criticism since this book was written, and that’s unfortunate. Did you steal pies from the windowsills of Concord? I don’t know. Probably doesn’t matter. There is a lot to admire in Walden, and credit is due to the premise of the experiment itself. You should get kudos for making the effort to live a truly examined life, sucking out the marrow out of your experience, and allowing yourself an objective view of “civilized” society (as objective as a mile and a half can afford, I guess).

However, you also missed the mark in a few places. The one that bothers me the most is the topic of philanthropy.

In Walden, you make several observations/statements/ pronouncements about the practice of philanthropy. Let’s examine a few below.

The Poor Remain, Frustratingly, Poor

But all this is very selfish, I have heard some of my townsmen say. I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises. I have made some sacrifices to a sense of duty, and among others have sacrificed this pleasure also. There are those who have used all their arts to persuade me to undertake the support of some poor family in the town; and if I had nothing to do — for the devil finds employment for the idle — I might try my hand at some such pastime as that. However, when I have thought to indulge myself in this respect, and lay their Heaven under an obligation by maintaining certain poor persons in all respects as comfortably as I maintain myself, and have even ventured so far as to make them the offer, they have one and all unhesitatingly preferred to remain poor.

There is a lot going on in this paragraph.

Here’s how it looks to me:

1) You’ve only occasionally tried out philanthropy.

2) When you have tried, it was out of a sense of duty.

3) You find philanthropy an inconvenient distraction from other things you’d rather be doing.

4) You may have once or twice asked poor people if they wanted to live like you (at Walden Pond?), but they turned you down.

5) The poor don’t quit being poor, despite your generous offer(s).

The methods, end goals, and effectiveness of philanthropy are among the most important things to consider before you give someone time, money, or opportunity of any kind. That said, just because people spurn them, or don’t display the changes you’d like, does not necessarily mean the attempt is not worthwhile, or even beneficial. To demand people change in exactly the ways that you prescribe, is selfish, arrogant, paternalistic, and futile.

In short, people may not do what you’d like with the opportunity you give them, but that doesn’t mean that philanthropy as a whole is an invalid practice.

Doesn’t Agree With Your Constitution

You must have a genius for charity as well as for anything else. As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. Moreover, I have tried it fairly, and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.

NO JOKE. It does not agree with my constitution, either. Probably most people would rather hang on to their money or other resources. You don’t give any reason for the disagreeableness of charity to your personal constitution, perhaps it is because you found it inconvenient? Or perhaps, (though less likely) you do not feel you can give to the poor because you would be doing so for compromised reasons? In either case, charity and philanthropy are not about you. They’re about the recipient. To say the act of giving is disagreeable is awfully selfish when face to face with someone in need. But more on your selfishness later.


On Newfoundland Dogs

A man is not a good man to me because he will feed me if I should be starving, or warm me if I should be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one. I can find you a Newfoundland dog that will do as much.

For the record, I can also find you a Newfoundland dog who will live alone in a cabin in the woods for two years. This also does not make him good. I wonder, what, if anything, would qualify a man as good in your opinion?

 Our Most Worthy State

Howard was no doubt an exceedingly kind and worthy man in his way, and has his reward; but, comparatively speaking, what are a hundred Howards to us, if their philanthropy do not help us in our best estate, when we are most worthy to be helped? I never heard of a philanthropic meeting in which it was sincerely proposed to do any good to me, or the like of me.

I am not sure if I understand what you mean here. Perhaps that is because I don’t know who Howard is. Do you mean that there are only certain people or kinds of people who “are worthy of” being helped? Do you think someone must have certain  intellectual stripes, or be making strides toward bettering himself to be worth the effort of philanthropy?

The last sentence is especially worrying. What have any of these people done for you? Clearly Mr. Thoreau, you see yourself as having particular worth, when you go off and live in the woods communing with nature and concluding that you live a better life than most other people. This should, in your mind I suppose, make you an especially good candidate for charity, yet you’ve not gotten any. How sad for you.


Give More than money

Be sure that you give the poor the aid they most need, though it be your example which leaves them far behind. If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them.

On the surface I agree with this sentiment. Most people need a great deal more than money. Being poor and/or homeless is an isolating, terrifying and disorienting experience. I firmly believe you shouldn’t just throw money at them and tell them to move along. However, this charge comes across as rather hypocritical from someone who has admitted that the act of philanthropy doesn’t agree with his constitution.



Some show their kindness to the poor by employing them in their kitchens. Would they not be kinder if they employed themselves there? You boast of spending a tenth part of your income in charity; maybe you should spend the nine tenths so, and done with it. Society recovers only a tenth part of the property then. Is this owing to the generosity of him in whose possession it is found, or to the remissness of the officers of justice?

Again, Thoreau, are you so self-deluded and blind? You give NOTHING to the poor, you sit in your cabin alone and critique society. Who on earth are you to critique people who give ten percent of their income to other people? I agree that folks who brag about their giving are kind of onerous. But they are no more onerous than someone who talks about improving himself and seeking out the good of Nature while seeking the attention and adulation that comes from his “suffering” in the woods.

A man may do “good” things out of improper motives, such as using his giving to the poor as a means to inflating his own ego. But don’t the actions, though improperly executed, still count as “good” to the people for whom it’s done? If you help a starving person, even for your own aggrandizement, do you think the starving person will care? I maintain that giving with poor motives is better than not giving at all.

It is especially better than sniping at anyone who tries to do good when you yourself are doing none.


Superfluity of Personality

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. I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves… I want the flower and fruit of a man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse. His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. The philanthropist too often surrounds mankind with the remembrance of his own castoff griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy.

Agreed! But you are the wrong person to make this argument. You have no constant superfluity of goodness, only criticism of materialism. Where is your charity Thoreau? Also, the charity that costs you something is the charity that is most valuable.

Which is worth more? The millionaire who gives a gazillion dollars to a person or cause, and doesn’t feel a pinch as a result? Or the widow’s mite, a tiny amount, tossed in to help, but at an enormous cost to her personally?

You abhor the people who self-aggrandize their suffering. Yet the suffering (without the aggrandizement) makes the giving precious. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, self-aggrandizing the inconveniences you “suffered” at Walden is kind of your thing.

Ambidextrous Giving

If you should ever be betrayed into any of these philanthropies, do not let your left hand know what your right hand does, for it is not worth knowing.

Agreed. This something Jesus said. He was right about it. He was someone who was not afraid to give. Also, the point stands and is a good model for humble giving regardless of your religious beliefs.

Worthies of the World

If, then, we would indeed restore mankind by truly Indian, botanic, magnetic, or natural means, let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our own brows, and take up a little life into our pores. Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.

False. Let’s cut the neo-magnetic, crystal-rubbing crap for a minute. The number of self-serving spiritual children you spawned with sentences like these have done as much good for the world as the fetid maggot that eats and eats, but refuses to become either fly or butterfly. If you are constantly staring at your navel, trying to improve yourself spiritually, all you’ll get is a distended belly.

Secondly, what kind of worthy in the world would not be helpful or magnanimous to the poor of the world?  It’s this bizarre, self-satisfied double standard you hold to, creating this perverse sense of self-righteousness. That’s what has me spinning. How do you become worthy without helping the world? Sitting around thinking grandiose thoughts about yourself and how you can build a cabin out of bargain Home Depot parts? Is that how you become worthy? If so, I want no part of it.

In Conclusion

Here’s the thing, Henry, you spend a lot of time in your book hyping your Romantic Ascetic Aesthetic (™).  You spill a lot of ink talking about the benefits of Nature, and about plumbing the depths of life and learning the most you can about yourself. These are good things.

That said.

It appears you’ve missed the entire point. If all the self-reflection and discovery and communion with Nature doesn’t make you a better person to your fellow human beings, what good is it? Can you even say you’ve done something “good” if another person, someone other than yourself, isn’t the ultimate beneficiary? I don’t think so. All your time alone in the woods failed to teach you the one elementary truth that humility and service to others are way more important than reading the classics or learning to survive on a meager ration of beans. If aren’t doing good for someone else, none of it matters. Because, why bother?

Philanthropy, even when impurely motivated, or shoddily executed, is near the summit of human endeavor.  Other things may matter, but they don’t matter nearly so much, because philanthropy takes the multiplied good of the deed, the giving, and the receiving, and spreads it out over everyone involved.

Take care.





P.S. Woodchuck sounds delightful, please send any recipes you’ve found particularly delicious. Thanks.


Joshua Rigsby is a writer, tea-drinker, and planet 9 enthusiast based in Southern California.

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