Progress for the sake of Progress
“Progress is not progress if it’s for its own sake”. The quote comes from Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge, but it describes Thoreau’s view on progress. It is an excerpt from Walden, Where I Lived, And What I Lived For. Thoreau tells his story in Where I Lived and what I lived for about how living simply can help you avoid the evils of society and the temptations to indulge. His musings on the real purpose of living are included. He also addresses progress as a social issue. Thoreau claims that progress has always a price, even when it is not easily visible.
It is possible that the cost of progress could be deadly. Thoreau uses a metaphorical extension of “sleepers”, to show the deadly side of progress. Thoreau uses railroad ties as a metaphor for those who died building railroads. The deaths of many of these immigrants were not reported. The railroad was paying for these people. Thoreau uses imagery for this. Thoreau says, “The rails on top of them are covered in sand. And the cars glide over them easily.” This is a metaphor to show how the deaths were “buried” and hidden from the general public. They are “sound sleepers”, so it’s hard to get them to pay attention or wake up. Railroad companies stop cars suddenly and cause a fuss when it’s attempted. Other people would have treated any evidence that there were deaths due to the building of railroads like it was an isolated problem. They would treat it as though it had happened so infrequently that no-one was aware, even though the truth was quite the contrary. Thoreau highlights the tendency of society to ignore dangers and problems in order to advance. This trend of ignorance has been going on since Thoreau’s day. Thoreau is aware of this, and says “every couple of years, a lot new is laid out and trampled over”. He means by this quote that society is going to continue to cover up and hide secrets in the interest of progress. Thoreau says that, in society’s eyes, the importance of progress outweighs safety.
Progress also costs us our happiness. Thoreau illustrates this with a railroad metaphor. He says: “If we don’t make sleepers, forge the rails, spend the days and the nights in the workshop, but improve our lives by tinkering, who is going to build railroads?” People are told to sacrifice their happiness for the sake or progress. The same thing continues to be done today. People work long and hard hours to make progress or maintain progress. They neglect their family, friends, and other relationships. Thoreau explains this by asking: “If railroads weren’t built, then how will we make it to heaven during the season?” Thoreau shows that many people believe that progress and benefiting the society will lead them to happiness.
This metaphor is based on the fact that Thoreau lived during a time when the railroads made a significant contribution to the development of the country. Walden was first published in 1854, during the railroad boom of the 1830s-1860s. Rails allowed people to travel farther and faster than ever. The railroads seemed to be taking passengers on a journey of heavenly proportions, in record time. In their excitement about the railroads, they forgot to consider their current happiness and instead focused on their future happiness. Thoreau was convinced that this is how we miss out on a key truth to living a fulfilling life. He thought that we should focus on the now, not the future, like so many others did in his time.
Thoreau believes that progress has robbed society of the ability to enjoy and live life. He does this through his conceit. For example, he compares civilized life with a “chopping ocean… clouds, storms and rapidsands”. Civilization has a generally positive connotation. If something is deemed gross or unpleasant, it’s called uncivilized. Civilization can be described as being well-organized and advanced. Thoreau contrasts it with a sea that is raging in a hurricane or even the hurricane itself. Storms can be chaotic and destructive. This is opposite to how most people see civilization. Thoreau makes the point through this idea that progress, as we know it, is actually destroying humanity. It has distorted our perception of what matters most, by filling it up with trivial, unimportant details. Thoreau said that “life’s frittered” by details. Each moment we waste worrying about these details is a lost opportunity.
The cost of progress is always present. Costs can take many forms. They may be something abstract we miss until it’s too late, or they could cost lives. We sacrifice a lot to make ourselves feel accomplished, to think that we’ve made progress, but we’re actually slipping behind in the areas that really matter, like our understanding of God or the world. The idea of progress or its concept has a lot of influence on our society. Thoreau wrote, “we are not on the railroad. The railroad rides us.” Progress is the only thing we can control.