Do the Mass of Men Lead “Lives of Quiet Desperation”?

How a misunderstanding of a problematic saying can lead to harmful results.

One of Henry David Thoreau’s most frequently quoted sayings is “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Many people have cited this sentence to me. To my surprise, they have always referred to it approvingly, as a correct and insightful claim that expresses their own view. It is also commonly mentioned in written form; as well, it appears in art, as in, for example, Peter Weir’s beautiful 1989 film, Dead Poets Society.

I have some difficulties with this claim. Many of those who cited it to me themselves felt quite desperate or depressed. (Although desperation and depression are not the same I refer here to them both and will use the terms interchangeably in this post.) It seemed to me that many of my interlocutors could have significantly diminished or gotten rid of their desperation, but that this claim decreased their readiness to take the means needed to do so. It did so in various ways.

First, there is a part in many of us that wants us to be like others. We feel uncomfortable at the thought that we are “different.” This tendency can be very powerful even when we are not aware of it. (Some advertisements use this tendency very efficiently to push us to buy some things that we do not really need, emphasizing that this or that is what most people do or wear today.) Thus, some people who hear that the majority of lives are led in quiet desperation are lured into entering such a state themselves or, if they are already in this state, into not leaving it.

Second, I found that many took this claim to imply that being depressed is a necessary state of affairs—part of the human condition that could perhaps be concealed, but not changed. “If the majority of people lead a life of quiet desperation although they probably do not enjoy it,” the reasoning seems to go, “then it’s probably unavoidable, and there’s no sense in trying to fight it.” Of course, accepting that a state of affairs is unalterable diminishes people’s readiness to do what can be done to change it.

Third, the claim leads some to feel that emphasizing or even enhancing their desperation would make them be, or seem, more authentic; they wear desperation on their sleeve as a status symbol. The line of thought seems to go more or less like this: “the mass of people who lead lives of quiet desperation probably do so because they are afraid to be who they are. I, on the other hand, am not afraid and I will not conceal who I am: I will lead a life of loud desperation.” Yet once emphasizing desperation is romanticized as authentic, unconventional, and brave, people do not easily let go of their desperation, fearing that doing this might be interpreted as returning to phoniness. On the contrary, they try to perpetuate and even augment their desperation.

Thoreau himself probably did not want this sentence, which appears in the first chapter of his celebrated book Walden; or, Life in the Woods to be taken out of its context and be understood so pessimistically. The book describes an interesting experiment Thoreau made with his own life when he moved to live in a cabin in a forested area by Walden Pond, Massachusetts. Among many other things, the book advocates solitude, self-reliance, contemplation, proximity to nature, and renouncing luxuries as means of overcoming human emotional and cultural difficulties. Thus, Thoreau in fact suggests in the book that people can stop leading lives of desperation and can improve their condition. The Walden experiment was initiated by the conviction that there is no need to go on living in desperation, quiet or not. Unfortunately, this is not the way in which many, unfamiliar with the context of this famous sentence, interpret it.

However, even when taken in context, the claim Thoreau makes in this sentence is problematic and incorrect. One question that comes to mind is how Thoreau knows that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Many people’s non-desperate demeanor may be the result of a real, genuine, contentment in life. Other people’s non-desperate demeanor may only be a cover-up of their silent desperation. Thoreau asserts that the mass of people are of the second type, but he does not present any evidence for this bold claim. To know that many people’s contented appearance is just a charade, Thoreau had to have some way of seeing through their demeanor to their inner self. But he does not tell us what it is.

I wonder how many people Thoreau spoke with before making this bold claim about the mass of people. He does not tell us, and I do not know, but I suspect that he based his claim, as is often the case with such generalizations, on his own feeling and on conversations he had with a few friends who told him that they, too, suffer from silent desperation. Then, using induction, he extrapolated from what was true of himself and a few others to “the mass of men,” assuming that most people who do not say or behave as if they are silently depressed are just hiding it.

Yet this, of course, is a rather problematic generalization from the very few to very many. A sample of myself and perhaps my friends (who, being my friends, may very well be like me) is too small, non-arbitrary, and unlikely to be representative of the human condition at large. If we asked Thoreau, after he made this exclamation, how he knew that the mass of people lead lives of quiet desperation, I doubt that he would have had a satisfying reply.

Research in empirical psychology shows that, contrary to what Thoreau claims, most people in the world are, in fact, generally happy. Even people in difficult conditions are usually happy. Thoreau’s claim is simply false: the mass of people in the world do not lead a life of quiet desperation but, rather, of happiness. Moreover, there are methods that help many who live desperately to live happily. Many have reported that these methods have been effective for them.

It is, of course, true that people don’t lead lives of perfect happiness. Happy people, too, have their occasional moments, hours, etc., of quiet or non-quiet desperation. And no people are happy about everything in their life. However, being sometimes sad, or even being always sad about a certain aspect of life, differs from leading a life of quiet desperation, and does not conflict with being a generally happy person who lives, all in all, a good life. Happy people need not be perfectly happy as if they were characters in fairy tales.

It is important to set this record straight. Thoreau probably did not want his claim to be taken out of context and to be understood pessimistically. Yet even in context, there are good reasons to believe that his claim is simply factually wrong. The negative implications many draw from this claim to their own lives, sometimes without being completely aware of it, are unnecessary and harmful.

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