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I am having trouble understanding the highlighted part of the following passage:

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.

-- Walden by Henry Thoreau

I think it means is that "cares" and "labors" are both the objects of "life."

Am I right? If not, what does it mean?

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Yes, factitious cares is used as an object of life. Note the definite article the immediately preceding it. This indicates that Thoreau is talking about two things in the same context: "The factitious cares of life" and "the superfluously coarse labors of life". Had he wanted to indicate that the factitious cares are merely general things and not specifically related to life, he would have written:

". . .so occupied with factitious cares and the superfluously coarse labors. . .

Thoreau is making a statement about people who lead boring and artificial lives through their own ignorant mistakes. Let's take a look at the meanings of factitious and superfluous:

Factitious: Not genuine or natural but created deliberately and made to appear to be true. (OALD)

Superfluous: Excessive, unnecessary, needless. (Dictionary.com)

Factitious cares in the given context therefore means that Thoreau considers most people to be engaged in pursuits that are not natural to them. The people to whom he refers are not working for real, genuine, useful things, but for created ends that serve no real purpose. Worse still, they're unaware that what they're doing is ultimately useless.

Superfluously coarse labors indicates Thoreau's disdain for what he considers unrefined goals and pastimes. He thinks of what the average person does as being excessively crude or unpolished.

To restate it in modern non-poetic English, Thoreau is basically saying:

Most people waste their freedom of expression and thought because they don't know any better. They put too much time into artificial and unnecessary pursuits, and because of this they don't get to enjoy the genuine and good things life has to offer.

Or, more casually stated:

Stop worrying so much! Enjoy the good things in life and don't get bogged down in the daily grind.

Factitious is not in general use in today's standard English. Most people will have to look it up, and it is easily confused with facetious. (I certainly had to look it up, and I did confuse the two words.) You're probably better off using artificial or constructed if you want to convey a similar meaning.

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  • Thank you. However, I wanted to ask whether the "of" of "life" also explained "cares."
    – user2492
    Commented Nov 27, 2013 at 1:10
  • I've edited to address this concern. I've left the prior content in, as I still feel it's useful information. (I certainly learned something from putting it together.) Commented Nov 27, 2013 at 14:20

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