January 7, 2008

Is this true?

Henry David Thoreau wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation."

Do you believe this? Why or why not?

(from Walden, 1854)


Phoenix Touch said...

If we are voting, put me down for "Nay, not true." In my mind, resignation is a sort of giving up, giving in and stopping. Whereas, in my experience, desperation seems to be more active with lots of frantic effort. Many trecherous deeds are pulled off in desperation. And, good lord, if the "mass of men" live lives of quiet desperation then we are really in trouble. Hmmm... maybe that part is true, given the state of the world.



Beat Dad said...

I agree with this statement, to a degree.

To me, this resignation comes with the reality of survival. How many of us wake up every morning, to go off to work or face a messy kitchen thinking, "how did I get here" or "I would rather ignore that mess?"

Also, consider what most peoples life was back when Thoreau wrote this. In this country at least, people spent most of their waking hours working. There was no eight hour work day, weekends, vacations, sick pay, insurance, day-care. etc. People were desperate for survival.

Resignation is maturity, it is understanding that you gotta take care of your stuff.

I could go on and on and on.....uh oh...poopie diaper

Great post SML

CV Rick said...

I think it's absolutely true. The mass of men are scraping by to stay ahead of their bills, to purchase the "things" they are told they want, that others have, that will make them happy. The mass of men are conforming to other people's dreams, they are barraged with advertising that manipulates their minds.

Nothing's simple, nothing's pure, there is no time to simply enjoy.

In our consumer-driven economy most men are slaves to their debt as surely as a debt slavery, only more insidious because a jail term or indentured servitude won't free them from their obligations, won't raise them to their expected status, won't bring them the life they see television idols living. Some work jobs they can't stand because the benefits are too precious to lose - health care, vacation, retirement. Some work careers they are ill-suited for because that's the career they were told would be lucrative, would best use their talents. Some work their lives for someone else's profits. And subsequently most are toiling not for themselves, but for others.

That's the formula for desperation and they're resigned to it. Thoreau was less right in his day than he is in ours.

- rick

Phoenix Touch said...

in clarification...

In my head, resignation and desperation are two totally separate ways of being, thinking, living. I do believe that too many of us ARE living in quiet desperation. Hence the horrid state of the world. However, I do not believe that resignation is precedes desperation. If anything, it is reversed. Desperation can get so deep that there is nothing to do but resign oneself to the situation, give up, give in and throw oneself upon the floor to wail impotently.

I am still in agreement with the beginning of the statement and opposing the end.

Ehem... I feel better now.

Becca said...

I think it used to be a lot more true, at least in Western Culture, or North American culture, maybe. More people are standing up and saying No, I won't live this way just because it's the way I am "expected" to live, I want to be happy. And expectations are loosening too.

CJ said...

This statement has far more meaning today than when Thoreau wrote it.

During his time, he was talking about the feeling of hopelessness of being a slave to the daily grind and being a slave to your boss. Today, the American man has been further de-valued. He has been relegated by society as the one who goes off to work and returns home (if the woman chooses not to work), but not much else. The American woman can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and decide for herself whether or not she chooses to let you feel like a man (because "women's prerogative" and "a woman's choice" reign supreme). Feelings in society have changed. In the 40's and 50's, men were "minute men." A minute, five tops, for sex, and he was done. No regard to what the woman wanted, because she was taught that her role in sex was to offer him gratification, and ignore her own needs. Now that a woman can express her own needs, we find that women can have multiple orgasms over a very long period, so even sexually, the man is now far inferior to the woman. Ever wonder why Viagra has become a drug used by over 3 million men who don't have ED?

I'm not saying that female superiority in any form is wrong. These are the conditions in which society has placed the woman. At the same time, it has created the conditions under which a man could not even object to such conditions (thank the Maker for Blogger...). Would not a man be called a "sexist pig" if he were to even mention any of this outside of a forum such as this?

I'm also not saying that this is how it works in every home. Intelligent, thoughtful men and women in committed relationships can overcome these societal stereotypes and be a balanced team, but they both must choose to shed those stereotypes. If compared to what society thinks is right, or what is politically correct to think is right, the balanced household would actually look largely imbalanced.

I love Google. Quick search, and I found both the song and the picture I was looking for, on one page! This song and mock magazine cover make my point exactly. Tell me that this is not the pervasive belief in society today.

Do I sound bitter? Because I'm really not bitter, dear, not at all! I'm thoroughly satisfied with my position in the family!

Anonymous said...


I'm curious where this is all coming from, especially since you are claiming not to be bitter. I completely disagree that the parody you linked to is the pervasive belief in society today. It is the stuff of a few silly sitcoms.

There are certainly problems in Western society and across the globe. Men have it hard in many ways. Women have it hard in many ways. Life is tough for all of us, and I grow weary of statements like the woman gets to "decide whether or not she chooses to let you feel like a man." That frames the whole issue in a way that makes everyone look bad. We can rise above that.

I'm grateful that I wasn't born somewhere that practices female genital mutilation or would force me to wear a burqa. I've struggled at a soul-deep level with the patriarchal culture in which I was raised. I'm also put out by "woman are superior" arguments. We could go back and forth until the end of time on who has it better or worse. Let's just accept that life is hard for all of us, albeit in different ways, and try to help each other out.


Beat Dad said...


That song was pretty dang funny.....btw my wife approves of me saying this....

I don't think that it is more true now than it was in the past.

Thoreau may have been talking about men ,but I interpreted the men he talks about as humanity. All people live lives that are touched by desperation.

CJ said...


No one is arguing that women don't have it hard. As far as getting through life, everyone's got their ups and downs.

I'm talking about not daily challenges, but the pervasive beliefs that rage in our culture. It's a pendulum. We swung far to one side in the 50's, we swung far back the other way in the 80's. We're coming back towards the middle again, but we've got a long way to go.

Couple this with the fact that everyone's sensibilities are so much in the forefront of today's society. You can't offend anyone these days. For example, why is it so unpopular to tell Mexicans to speak English in the United States? Why do we find ourselves printing signs and placards in English and Spanish? If this is the Great American Melting Pot, why are some not melting? Now, I'll bet you that some of you probably felt a little twinge of discomfort when reading that last section. That's society's "don't offend anyone" mantra creeping in.

We can't offend anyone, and consequently we can't fully express our opinions regarding our societal positions (men or women) because we might offend someone. This is why Thoreau felt so much "despair" and "resignation." He felt stuck between a rock and a hard place, much like we are today.

CJ said...


Hopefully I clarified a little in my recap. You're right, the same issue touches both men and women, and in retrospect, I believe that you are right in the fact that "men" is used in the generic in Thoreau's piece. I had to go back and re-read the original, but I think you're right.

That said, even though it was a little off-track (since it's not really about men and women), I stand by my initial thoughts on men and women in today's society.

bel said...

That song is hardly the expression of the "pervasive" attitude of society today. This kind of thing about being dominated by women is not only the "stuff of silly sitcoms" as Meg so rightly pointed out, but was also a staple of stand-up comedy during the 50s when men ruled the roost in all kinds of ways. And the idea that "female superiority" is the norm is perhaps your perception of it, but it seems to me based on an underlying assumption that men have been knocked off some kind of pedestal of entitlement. How about it's just that women are finally gaining some equity, which means that men are no longer automatically privileged over women on a societal basis?

It's interesting to me that you took this approach to a quote that was talking about something entirely different. Whether or not Thoreau used the word "men" to mean humanity as a whole, I doubt strongly that he was talking about gender relations in this quote in the least. It seems to me you just wrenched in order to get something personal off your chest.

CJ said...


If I initially believed it to be regarding gender relations then my first post was appropriate.

The quote is not about gender relations.

That said, I stand by my clarification:

We can't offend anyone, and consequently we can't fully express our opinions regarding our societal positions (men or women) because we might offend someone. This is why Thoreau felt so much "despair" and "resignation." He felt stuck between a rock and a hard place, much like we are today.

bel said...

Yeah, but you're still reading your own contemporary prejudices into it. PC speech as we experience it today was not at all an issue in the time of Thoreau. And Thoreau, of all people, was not in the slightest bit worried about "offending" anybody. In fact, he WANTED to offend people--and who he wanted to offend was not his "neighbor" (speaking very broadly) but was the powers that be (see Civil Disobedience). Another quote from Thoreau is instructive here. He said (and I may not have this exactly) "I went to the woods to try and live deliberately." It is arguable that what he meant by that was to try and live consciously, with as much awareness as possible-both of the present moment and of himself in that present moment. I don't think Thoreau felt oppressed because he couldn't express himself however he felt like it no matter what other people thought. I think he felt oppressed because living in society with all kinds of things, distractions, convention, etc., kept him from delving into the heart of things--from "living deliberately." My take is that what Thoreau meant by "quiet desperation" is that people could not live authentically, true to their best selves and fully in the present moment in the beauty of the world. Most people are living automatically, reactively, and with little or no self-awareness. That's still the case today, though with far different particulars that in Thoreau's time.

As far as PC speech goes, to me that's a completely different issue and honestly, I just don't see any connection between that issue and Thoreau's quote. Do you really feel people are quietly desperate because you're afraid to say something that might offend somebody else?

bel said...

Sorry. That last comment should read "because they're afraid to say afraid to say something that might offend somebody else"

Phoenix Touch said...

Ladies and gentlemen...

I stand with CJ and his clarification.

He's right.

We cannot speak our truths without offending someone in this over-sensitive, politically-correct, egg-shell-protecting sort of society we all have created for ourselves. Hence the debate we see going on here in SML's blog.

CJ posted a comedic poke at the men/women debate and lots of ladies got their panties bunched up because they assume he is poking directly at them. Sweeties, it was supposed to be FUNNY in a hardy-har-har sort of way. (You can correct me if you totally meant it otherwise, CJ.)

I agree with CJ. The women's movement has emasculated our men. Women have swung to the extreme - I have actually seen a woman yell at a man for holding the door for her - all in the name of "equal rights." Men and women ARE equal - even were "back then" - and something needed to be done. However, we women have, in some ways, become far worse then the men "back then" with whom we were trying to become equal.

There are many reasons MAN and WOMAN were created so differently - more than just so they could fit together nicely during sex. They were placed here with distinctly different roles in mind. And while I am in no way in support of a totally partriarchal order, I am in support of co-creative TEAMWORK. Where neither man nor woman are lesser or higher. And where it doesn't matter who holds the door for who(whom, whatever the hell it is).

Anonymous said...

Throwing around the PC speech/we can't say anything because someone will be offended is a smoke and mirrors trick in this discussion.

If you make a statement and someone debates it, it is a complete copout to tell them they are offended and avoid answering the actual debate. We can engage a discussion on its merits. Some ideas are better than others. Some things we will just disagree about. If you want to say something, just say it and don't tell me whether or not I am offended. And don't whine about not being able to say it.

I don't think SML intended for this post to go this way! Sorry Sister!

I just have to respond to one more thing. PT- there is no one homogenous thing that can be called "the woman's movement." You seem to be referring generally to second wave feminism, which may have been extreme in some respects, but bought us so many of the privileges we as women have today that most of us don't even realize we wouldn't have had.


J.M. Tewkesbury said...

And, bringing the conversation back to the quote and question before us... Is humanity caught in the throes of leading lives of quiet desperation?

I think Thoreau was a bit off in concluding that resignation is the confirmation of desperation. Let's look it up, shall we?

resignation (noun): the act of retiring or giving up position

desperation (noun): a state of despair, typically one that results in rash or extreme behavior; a derivative of despair (noun): the complete loss or absence of hope.

Hm. I'm seeing significant difference there. To re-sign or re-tire or re-treat means to fall back in an effort to gather new strength and clarity. Sure, you might have to give something up in the process, but that doesn't mean all is lost. Resigning represents a set back, but certainly not a defeat. As a feeling, it isn't the best emotion to have, but it isn't the end by any means.

Desperation can be another story completely. Feelings of desperation can be dark and overwhelming and hopeless. They may provoke feelings of stress and anxiety. As the definition of its antecedent suggests, it may lead us to desperate acts and moments of mostly irrational behavior. For some of us, despair may lead us to do things we might not have had we possessed the necessary resources to be fully empowered.

Based on defining resignation and desperation, I think Thoreau was WAY off the mark. Many of us experience feelings of resignation every single day. But we accept the good with the bad and we move forward, hopefully.

Where resignation leads to desperation is when we allow ourselves to believe we can't rise about our circumstances or make our situation better. We resign ourselves more and more to fate until we're finally wallowing in defeat. What little energy or hope we have left becomes defensive and, when provoked--whether positively or negatively--we react out of sheer desperation and the need to survive.

I'll grant you, I've just painted a broad stroke with all of that, but I think Thoreau was wrong to jump immediately from the one to the other.

Just my five cents,


hm-uk said...

See, I really like Thoreau for his ideas of wanting to live his own authentic existance. When we 'chase' anything - career, trappings, the idea of what we think society requires of us, then perhaps this is the quiet desperation - that nothing will be 'good enough' and that we will never be 'good enough'.
Resignation may come from the flurry of activity and believing that what we have (possess) is not good enough and will never be good enough - like watching a fan that is spinning so fast that you cannot see the blades.
In my mind, that's when bitterness truly sets in. We are bitter creatures, we are. I'll admit that I am, even though I am mostly content with my life and lot. Whether we buy into the bs that says we must have a new truck, new house, new dress, new body or that we are losing our 'cultures' (women and men, melting pot stuff), we chase ideals and become embittered towards things that stand in our way.

Sideon said...

Tangent, but when I'm too bitter (which is often), I'll put extra sugar in my coffee, call friends that make me smile, take my dog on long walks, listen to music that makes me want to hug the world, and end up napping next to Scott in the knowledge that sleep and dreams will change my perspective and attitude, at least for a little while.

Then I'm back adding sugar.

hm-uk said...

Thanks Sid for pulling me back from the abyss of hopelessness...I can get a bit maudlin at times! xH

Sister Mary Lisa said...

Thanks for all your comments on this subject. The turn this took was fascinating to watch, I must admit!

I figured Thoreau was talking about men as in humanity, not men vs. women ~ and I am of the opinion that most people are they who go on from day to day feeling quiet desperation. I have simply seen too many people like this to believe otherwise.

I wish I had more time to talk about why I think people live in quiet desperation, but sadly work is so busy I'm feeling a desperation of my own! And it ain't so quiet! ;)

Thanks for all your thoughtful responses. I am continually amazed by the awesome people who frequent my blog.

Anonymous said...

I'm coming in very late to this discussion, but my thought is yes, most people live lives of quiet desparation. Most people aren't doing what they want to be doing, how they want to be doing it, etc. At least, the responsible ones aren't, lol. They live how they think they should.... Crappy jobs (or ill-suited would be a better word choice), bad relationships, religions that suck the life out of you, families that drain you, etc. Because it's what is done.

I do think it's changing and not necessarily for the better. I think it needs to change but the way it's changing is taking people to a "me" driven society, where it's all about JUST me... and that's no good either.

Now I'm being rambly......

BTW, Fig and I just buy big pants and share them. :)

Anonymous said...


T'wer ever thus. If there is any difference between humanity's lot in HDT's time and that of our own, it is that the desperation is no longer so quiet. We can (and do) spread our angst around the planet with a few key strokes, creating a virtual cacaphony of anguish . Changing external conditions cannot extinguish our feeling of desperation because it is psychological in origin, a result of being conscious of the fact that we will know suffering and eventually die as a condition of having been alive at all. Watch an infirm grandfather cling fiercely to his new granddaughter in parting from her. The desperation inherent in the human condition will be apparent.

Our real challenge is to find some contentment inside the desperation.