Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and Henry Ford (1863-1947) could be connected in many ways. Both men had strong opinions about capitalism and consumerism. Both men had an reverence for nature. Both men believed in hard work and self reliance. Both men had strong feelings about science and technology. Overarching all of these areas, both men rooted their philosophies in the concept of simplification. Thoreau’s and Ford’s philosophies show the two men’s philosophies were practically opposite despite both being rooted in simplicity. Thoreau and Ford obviously were unable to ever discuss their philosophies with each other, but I’ve wondered what a conversation between them would be like. Therefore, I will attempt to compare and contrast Thoreau’s and Ford’s philosophies through a fictitious dialectic exchange, of which is entirely based on research of their philosophies.
Henry David Thoreau: Good day Mr. Ford. I am delighted to make your acquaintance.
Henry Ford: It is good to meet you as well, Mr. Thoreau. I understand you and I both have viewpoints surrounding the idea of simplicity. In my work as an industrialist, I have been able to build my Model T efficiently and affordably by eliminating “lost motion” and “slack” and making the tasks involved in the production process smaller and simpler (Grandin, 4, 223). The success of my Model T is because of simplicity. “Commonplace simplicity marks the greatness of the Ford. Simple in design-anyone can quickly understand it. Simple in construction-and every part a bulwark of strength. Simple in operation-anyone can operate it. Simple to maintain-anyone can care for it.” (thehenryford.org). “My effort is in the direction of simplicity” (Grandin, 4).
HDT: Yes, Mr. Ford. Your efforts in industrialization have indeed simplified the assembly line process. However, does this simplification carry over to life itself? Has simplification in industrialization made human lives more simple or more complicated? Simplification in industrialization, the ability for goods to be produced quickly and cheaply, has given rise to an all encompassing consumerism and materialism in society. Men amass items and furniture like their lives can be measured by how much they own. Their collections of goods only serves to complicate their lives. “When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all-looking like an enormous well which had grown out of the nape of his neck-I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry” (Allen and Almonte, 360). All of these things are merely a trap. “If I have got to drag my trap, I will take care that it be a light one and do not nip me in a vital part. But perchance it would be wisest never to put one’s paw into it” (Allen and Almonte, 360).
HF: Mr. Thoreau, there are indeed items which are merely “trumpery and trinkets” that are made “only to be sold, and bought only to be owned” (Grandin, 40). Items which serve “no real service to the world and are at last mere rubbish as they were at first mere waste” (Grandin, 40). However, items like my Model T, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines are great inventions to ease and simplify man’s existence (Grandin, 40). Great inventions which ease a man’s burdens in life are possible through higher wages. Abundance and simpler living is achievable when workers make enough to be able to afford to buy the quality, life enhancing items they make (Grandin, 40; Wicks, 50). “High wages,” you see, “to create large markets” in which production and consumption are both increased (Grandin, 40). “Our buying class is our working class” and “our working class must become our ‘leisure class’ if our immense production is to be balanced by consumption” (Grandin, 73). Mr. Thoreau, “Where does the money to make wheels go ‘round come from?” (McCarthy, 82). “From the consumer, of course…success in manufacture is based solely upon an ability to serve that consumer to his liking. He may be served by quality or he may be served by price. He is best served by the highest quality a the lowest price” (McCarthy, 82). I seek to simplify man’s life by providing him the highest quality product for the lowest price. At the same time, I seek to pay a man a fair wage for an honest days work, so that he may enjoy a simpler life. Simplicity in economics is giving the consumer the best product for the best price and paying a man a wage in which he can afford to buy those products.
HDT: Compensation, Mr. Ford, for an honest day’s work is certainly required for man’s existence. However, are there not many forms of compensation? Are all forms of compensation equally beneficial to man for man to live fully? It seems, Mr. Ford, “men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal” (Allen and Almonte, 350). In our modern economy, men work to consume and to pay off debt, which essentially places the laborer in servitude to the debtor. Many men “are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes as it were, grasping for breath” while “trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt” (Allen and Almonte, 350). Simplicity in economics would be to eliminate consumerism so that men may be compensated for their hard work with freedom.
HF: Mr. Thoreau, it certainly is not right that “We have dotted lines for this, that and the other thing-all of them taking up income before it is earned” (Grandin, 92). However, the problem does not come from the industrialist, it comes from the capitalist. “The difference between me and a capitalist is that I earn my living honestly. A capitalist loans out his money, collects the interest, and lets the other fellow do the work” (Wik, 19). “Get the gambling aristocrats to work…A capitalist doesn’t work at all. His money works for him” (Wik, 19). My brand of capitalism is one in which capitalism works for the working man, not the aristocrat (Brinkley, 52). My brand of capitalism is one in which working men prosper and overcome hard times through “self-reliance,” “rugged individualism,” tightening “bootstraps,” and “learning by doing” (Grandin, 40, 63; Wik, 21). By 1919, The Ford Motor Company had made over $300,000,000, “entirely upon its own resources” (thehenryford.org). Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he said “Trust Thyself!” and “Prayers are a disease of the will” (Wik, 22; Grandin, 68). It is a philosophy of simplicity. Work hard and be self-reliant.
HDT: I can agree with you, Mr. Ford, that the abilities to work hard and be self-reliant are indeed noble qualities for a man to have. However, hard working and self-reliant to what end? To live. But, to live what kind of life? “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (Allen and Almonte, 350). It seems, Mr. Ford, that men have “no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance-which his growth requires-who has so often to use his knowledge?” (Allen and Almonte, 350) For men to live simply and happily, men must realize that “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly” (Allen and Almonte, 350). Take for example, Mr. Ford, the act of providing for oneself through self-reliance and hard work. In your view, it appears, for one to provide for oneself one must labor under industrialization, to earn money to purchase most of the necessities of life. However, “There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwelling with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?” (Allen and Almonte, 356). In our modern consumer society, we rely on others to construct our homes, to grow our food, to make our clothes. What have we lost due to this lack of self-reliance? “We belong to the community. It is not the tailor alone who is the ninth part of a man; it is as much the preacher, and the merchant, and the farmer. Where is this division of labor to end? And what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself” (Allen and Almonte, 356-57). Simplicity is indeed in self-reliance and hard work. However, to achieve the best end to self-reliance and hard work one must provide the necessities of life, as much as possible, for oneself. In this way, man can grow and develop the finer parts of his nature, like his creative and intellectual faculties, which broadens his humanity. Man’s reliance on machines to provide for the necessities of life is detrimental to self-reliance. Man’s reliance on machines that turn man into a machine himself is detrimental to humanity.
HF: Mr. Thoreau, I can agree men should grow their own food. I had given fifty-five thousand employees plots of land in which they could cultivate their own vegetable gardens so that they did not have to depend on government relief during the Great Depression (Grandin, 277-78). However, why should man and machine be at odds? Mr. Thoreau, “We cannot eat or wear our machines. If the world were one vast machine shop it would die. When it comes to sustaining life we go to the fields. With one foot in agriculture and the other in industry, America is safe” (Wik, 255). Yes, nature is required for man’s survival, however, nature is not incompatible with science and technology. Together, nature, science and technology can help man prosper. The “Industrious application of inventive genius to the natural resources of the earth is the groundwork of prosperous civilization” (Wik, 247). At Ford Motor Company, we have merged science and technology with natural resources. The machines developed by Ford can do more work in less time for less money than a horse (Wik, 248). Also, “the cow must go” (Grandin, 60). “Why should a farmer spend a lot of time taking care of a bunch of cows. It takes 20 days of actual work to grow and harvest the grain crops on a dairy farm. The rest of the time is spent taking care of animals” (Wik, 250). “It is a simple matter to take the same cereals that the cows eat and make them into a milk that is superior to the natural article and much cleaner,” and “Our laboratories have already” shown that “the concentration of the elements of milk can be manufactured into scientific food by machines” made from soy (Grandin, 60). Our laboratories, through the science of chemurgy, have transformed soy into plastics, paints, glues, cardboards, and fabrics (Grandin, 59; Wik, 251-54). The new uses our scientists have discovered for soy were a simple solution to the agricultural depression in which farmers had an excess of product (Wik, 254). Simplicity is achieved when man with machine, science and technology all work together.
HDT: I must inquire further Mr. Ford, to what end does the merger of man, machine, science and technology achieve? What is the best end for man to achieve? It seems that “with a hundred ‘modern improvements’; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance” (Allen and Almonte, 358). “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at” (Allen and Almonte, 358). In technology, the machine is robbing man of his connection to nature through hard work. Man and nature are no longer working together. Instead, man and machine are using nature. In science, man is separating himself from nature. Mr. Ford, “the universe is built around us, and we are central still” (Furtak). What I mean by this is, man has many faculties assigned to him, of which are sensory, emotional, and intellectual (Furtak). As such, there exists “no such thing as a pure objective observation. Your observation, to be interesting, i.e. to be significant, must be subjective” (Furtak). To offer a true observation, man must describe his observation in ways in which all the faculties of the human mind are represented (Furtak). “The truest description, and that by which another living man can most readily recognize a flower, is the unmeasured and eloquent one which the sight of it inspires” (Furtak). “The true man of science will know nature better by his finer organization; he will smell, taste, see, hear, feel, better than other men. His will be a deeper and finer experience” (Furtak). I am troubled that the science you speak of “discovers no world for the mind of man with all its faculties to inhabit” (Furtak). The simplistic improvements of science and technology you speak of Mr. Ford, seem to only distance man further from nature. Man is no longer involved with nature, instead man is merely using nature. When man is distanced from nature, man is distanced from himself, because man is of nature. If man is to live fully and simply, man must distance himself from machines and technology which rob him of his connection with nature and ultimately which rob him with his connection to himself.
HF: Mr. Thoreau, by all means, nature is necessary for man’s survival. “I don’t like the city, it pins me in,” Mr. Thoreau. “I want to breath. I want to get out” (Grandin, 41). “It is not right,” you see, “to put a layer of dust [from smokestack pollution] over the surrounding country and spoil its trees and plants” (McCarthy, 80). However, industry and nature do not need to be at odds and Emerson recognized this fact (Grandin, 57). I agree with Emerson in that through the mechanical advancements of industry, the car and the railroads, man can better experience nature (Grandin, 57). Also, as Emerson believed, industry can help man work more efficiently which would give him more time to contemplate and enjoy nature (Grandin, 57). “For most purposes a man with a machine is better than a man without a machine. Unless we better understand the mechanical portion of life, we cannot have the time to enjoy the trees, and the birds, and the flowers, and the green fields” (Grandin, 246). “I will build a motor car for the great multitude,” and “It will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s greatest open spaces” (Brinkley, 44). The great naturalist writer, my friend, John Burroughs enjoys the Catskill Mountains by way of the Model T (McCarthy, 80; Wicks, 55). Regarding industry’s obligation to nature and the public, “Picking up and reclaiming the scrap left over after production is a public service,” “but planning so that there will be no scrap is a higher public service” (McCarthy, 56). However, “Conserving our natural resources by withdrawing them from use is not a service to the community,” because “our natural resources are ample for all our present needs” (McCarthy, 81). Waste is unacceptable to me (McCarthy, 77). We can use resources wisely and efficiently, limiting waste as much as possible, which will conserve the resources for future generations, reduce pollution, allow the factory to run more efficiently, and generate more profits (McCarthy, 67). We should take care to conserve resources as much as possible, to protect nature and generate profits. But, the conservation of resources need not mean that we not utilize what nature has given us to use to ensure the prosperity of man.
HDT: Mr. Ford, Emerson wrote that one could find in nature “a sanctity which shames our religions,” and I do agree with Emerson on this point (Furtak). However, Emerson would assert each object in nature is “a symbol of some spiritual fact” (Furtak). Mr. Ford, “Is not Nature, rightly read, that of which she is commonly taken to be the symbol merely?” (Furtak). Mr. Ford, one should “be always on the alert to find God in nature,” and listen for “the language which all things and events speak without metaphor” (Furtak). What I mean is, nature is not a mere symbol of greatness, nature is in itself greatness. Nature has value in itself, its value is not derived from how it can be utilized by man (Furtak). There exists a “much grander significance” in nature “when not referred to man and his needs but viewed absolutely” (Furtak). “Whatever we have perceived to be in the slightest degree beautiful is of infinitely more value to us than what we have only as yet discovered to be useful and to serve our purposes” (Furtak). When I made my home at Walden, I discovered “Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself” (Allen and Almonte, 363). Mr. Ford, man is not set apart from nature. Man is of nature. Man must view the world as “nature looking into nature” (Furtak). If man can value nature simply for the value nature possesses intrinsically, then man can value himself simply for the value man possesses intrinsically. Man living in simplicity, in nature, allows man to prosper in ways monetary gain cannot award him.
HF: So, Mr. Thoreau, how should we conclude this discussion?
HDT: It seems, Mr. Ford, we have come to the conclusion that you and I are of the different minds regarding the concept of simplicity.
In conclusion, Thoreau’s ideologies posit simplifying life through less consumerism and materialism. However, Ford’s ideologies posit simplifying life through industrialization and capitalism. Thoreau asserted science and technology could be detrimental to humans and nature, while Ford saw science and technology as being compatible with nature. Thoreau and Ford both asserted humans should be self-reliant and work hard. Thoreau seemed to view humans working hard in connection with nature as being self-reliant. Conversely, Ford seemed to view the machine as enhancing humans’ abilities to work hard and be self-reliant. While both men seemed to have a reverence for nature, which both men also seem to relate to simplification, Thoreau seemed to assert we ought to live within nature while Ford seemed to assert we ought to live by utilizing all nature provides. The incompatibility between Thoreau’s and Ford’s philosophies arises because Thoreau based his viewpoints on simplicity in nature, while Ford based his viewpoints on simplicity in machines. It is to be noted, the quotes are all of Thoreau’s and Ford’s own (or in some cases, Emerson’s), by either spoken or written. It is also to be noted, I have made some interpretive logical deductions in offering Thoreau’s and Ford’s views. My hope is that I have portrayed each mans’ views accurately and respectfully.
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