Simplicity is more than a mode of life for Thoreau. It is a philosophical ideal as well. In his “Economy” chapter, Thoreau asserts that a feeling of dissatisfaction with one’s possessions can be resolved in two ways: one may acquire more, or reduce one’s desires. Thoreau looks around at his fellow Concord residents and finds them taking the first path, devoting their energies to making mortgage payments and buying the latest fashions. He prefers to take the second path of radically minimizing his consumer activity. Thoreau patches his clothes instead of buying new ones and dispenses with all accessories he finds unnecessary.

For Thoreau, anything more than what is useful is not just an extravagance, but a real impediment and disadvantage. He builds his own shack instead of getting a bank loan to buy one, and enjoys the leisure time that he can afford by renouncing larger expenditures. Ironically, he points out, those who pursue more impressive possessions actually have fewer possessions than he does, since he owns his house outright, while theirs are technically held by mortgage companies. He argues that the simplification of one’s lifestyle does not hinder such pleasures as owning one’s residence, but on the contrary, facilitates them.

Another irony of Thoreau’s simplification campaign is that his literary style, while concise, is far from simple. It contains witticisms, double meanings, and puns that are not at all the kind of New England deadpan literalism that might pass for literary simplicity. Despite its minimalist message, Walden is an elevated text that would have been much more accessible to educated city-dwellers than to the predominantly uneducated country-dwellers.