“I saw a striped snake turn into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I staid there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life.” (Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Norton Anthology of American Literature, p. 1002)
In “Economy,” Thoreau not only discusses the practical aspects of a man’s life, but also his spiritual state. In the passage above, he uses the metaphor of the striped snake to warn of man’s current degradation, while simultaneously offering hope for a future spiritual awakening. It is interesting to note that the animal he chooses is a snake, hinting at the form adopted by Satan when he tricked Eve in the Book of Genesis. In the Bible, the snake represented man’s greatest downfall: the quest for knowledge that led, ultimately, to the creation of modern civilization (and the capitalism and materialism that goes along with it). In Thoreau’s metaphor, the snake seems to represent man’s state since his exile from the Garden of Eden — asleep, languid, and not aware of the potential to find inspiration and simplicity in Nature.
Thoreau ironically refers to this state as “low” and “primitive,” even though it is a result of man’s modern society and the labor economy of America at the time of Thoreau’s writing. Although many would consider this society to be civilized and advanced, Thoreau views it as backward: man should only work for himself, not for others, and he should spend the time that he is not working in pursuit of independent thought and spiritual betterment, not in squandering one’s money on the latest fashions or luxuries.
A man who has not transcended the materiality of the world is thus considered to be “torpid” — that is, sluggish and bogged down in conventions. The solution, Thoreau posits, is for such men to experience the “spring of springs.” Here, he calls attention to the season often thought of as a time of awakening, both in terms of the flowers that bloom during the spring months and in a literary sense (e.g., Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales begins in the spring, a time of rebirth and a time to go on spiritual journeys). Moreover, the spring represents emersing oneself in Nature — or, at least, in the solitude and contemplation that transcendentalists found in natural settings.
Although Thoreau advocates going one’s own way, he draws on these traditional notions of spring as a time of vitality. When man leaves behind his materialism, he awakens to this higher world of self-realization, critical thought, and spiritual goodness shared by all humans at their core. Although Thoreau’s tone can sometimes be abrasive and jarring, it is sometimes also beautiful, with vivid imagery and hints at the lessons than man can learn if only he can shake off his complacency and view the world from a different perspective, like a snake shedding its old skin for something new.