Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” The desired life is only achievable through hard work and struggle. Henry David Thoreau and Adam Smith both agree that struggle is needed but disagree on who must struggle for this gain. Throughout history, different groups of people have had to suffer for their own or other’s gain.
Despite the accuracy of Smith’s view of prospering from others’ struggles, Thoreau’s view of personal struggle for personal gain is more reflective of today’s society based on survival, success, and desire. Poverty is a serious issue in our country and around the world. People are fighting for survival, just as they were in Jonathan Swift’s time.
Swift states, “It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town. . . crowded with beggars of the female s*x . . . These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants” (404).
During both Swift’s time and today, in 2018, families lack the essentials for life. These mothers are not begging for fun, but rather to get the necessary tools for survival for both themselves and their families. Struggle is being endured for the individual’s gain in the form of life. Swift’s view of 17th century Ireland correlates directly to today’s economy because people are still struggling for survival. This survival is “the cost of . . . what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it” (Thoreau 515). Individual struggle contributes to individual survival for those in poverty.
Just because someone has survived, it does not mean that they have lived. Living involves working for and achieving what you want in life. People set high goals that aim for what can be improved. In Booker T. Washington’s “The Atlanta Exposition,” he speaks of this need for success. “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top” (418).
Washington is stating that everyone must work their way to where they want to be. Success does not come easy and must be achieved through personal dedication and hard work, just as Thoreau states in his book Walden. Thoreau explains that only the person who works for their gains achieves them. An individual’s success is not simply granted, but personally fought for.
Despite the achievements of many people, more is still desired. Within “On Dumpster Diving” Lars Eighner writes “Between us are the rat-race millions who have confounded their selves with the objects they grasp and who nightly scavenge the cable channels looking for they know not what” (430). This describes how the middle-class is interested in possessions and has an endless empty want for accumulation.
People peruse stores and advertisements for what they want, despite not wanting anything specific. This accumulation can only be fueled through monetary support. The money for buying these items is gained from a person’s work. Without the hard work Thoreau mentions, this constant accumulation would be unable to continue. The desire to acquire is fueled by hard work for monetary gain.
In some instances, the struggles of one group brings about gains for another group. This is what Adam Smith says in The Wealth of Nations,“The real price of everything . . . is the toil and trouble which it can save for himself, and which it can impose on other people” (514). Smith believes that people can achieve things through others’ struggles.
This theory can be viewed today in the laying off of employees to help a business prosper. In “How to Restore the American Dream” Muhtar Kent is quoted saying, “You couple the habits [of efficiency] from a deep recession [with] an exponential increase in technology, and you’re not going to see jobs for a long, long time” (Zakaria 462). In this instance, the company is prospering, but not from its own struggle.
This struggle is endured by the employees. Others are suffering for the advancement of something or someone else. However, business is only a small portion of life. In someone’s life, the purchase of goods is much more common than the loss of a job. Additionally, the loss of a job may lead a person to strive for new goals.
The personal struggle for personal gain, rather than others’ struggles for an individual’s gain, is much more prevalent in everyday life. Smith makes a valid point about struggling for gain, but Thoreau’s view of personal struggle is more prevalent in today’s society. Consumers work hard for their money so that they can feed their endless need to accumulate.
People set goals and strive to reach them throughout their lives. Those in poverty struggle to survive in today’s harsh world. Individual struggles for individual gains are seen throughout everyday life. Thoreau’s quote still rings true over 150 years later. Remember how possessions and achievements are met. It’s not with others’ work, but with the work of each individual person.
Eighner, Lars. “On Dumpster Diving.” The Language of Composition, Second Edition,
Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013, 421-430.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” The Language of Composition, Second Edition,
Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013, 404-410.
Washington, Booker T. “The Atlanta Exposition.” The Language of Composition, Second Edition,
Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013, 417-420.
Zakaria, Fareed. “How to Restore the American Dream.” The Language of Composition, Second
Edition, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013, 460-468.
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