Thoreau’s Life Without Principle

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Thoreau so when I discovered a link to his essay “Life Without Principle” while in the process of deleting old bookmarks from Safari I decided it might be a good/easy place to try to restart my brain. Considering how well-known the essay is, I was surprised that I hadn’t encountered it before; but if I had, I had no recollection of it.

I wasn’t too surprised that I immediately agreed with many of his ideas for I had the same reaction when I first met them in college in an American Lit class. If anything, I am probably more in agreement with some of his ideas now than I was when I first met them. After all, as a freshman in college I planned on eventually getting a well-paid job in business, so I doubt I would have been entirely convinced by this opening argument:

This World is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in; they are commonly ruled for dollars and cents. An Irishman, seeing me making a minute in the fields, took it for granted that I was calculating my wages. If a man was tossed out of a window when an infant, and so made a cripple for life, or seared out of his wits by the Indians, it is regretted chiefly because he was thus incapacitated for business! I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.

However, the longer I worked the more I began to feel that work was something you did so you could really live when you weren’t working. In fact, I became convinced that there wasn’t anything in the world I could do that turning it into a job wouldn’t ruin. Heck, I turned a delightful hobby, woodworking, into a nightmare by trying to make money from it, even though I got more requests than I had time to fulfill. My daughter is convinced I should try to make money from my photography; I’m convinced that I’m having too much fun taking pictures to waste time trying to sell them.

I hadn’t spent much time walking in the woods until well after I’d graduated from college, but I really identify with this passage:

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!

Having become more rabid about the environment as I’ve seen more and more of it destroyed in recent years, I’ve become convinced that businesses won’t be satisfied until they’ve destroyed all vestiges of Old Growth Forests. We’ve entered Brave New Worlds when it comes to the enjoyment of nature, whether it’s State owned or Federally owned lands.

Ideally, like Thoreau, I would have spent most of my time out in nature, and I certainly arranged my life so that I could do so as much as possible. Having summers off to hike and backpack was probably the only thing that kept me teaching at times. I took early retirement at a considerable pay cut so that I could spend even more time in the mountains. I got more pleasure from hiking than I ever got from most of the things that money could buy for me.

That said, I was still offended when I read this passage:

Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient. Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage.

Perhaps if I had chosen not to get married and have children I might have been able to get by working half time or less, like some of the young ski instructors or river guides I at times envied, but I can’t imagine ever having thought that those who made other choices had sold their “birthright for a mess of pottage.” Not known for my humility, I still can’t imagine ever passing judgement on anyone else like that.

Just about the time you start to disagree with Thoreau, though, he suddenly seems right on target again:

I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week. I have tried it recently, and for so long it seems to me that I have not dwelt in my native region. The sun, the clouds, the snow, the trees say not so much to me. You cannot serve two masters. It requires more than a day's devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.

Most of my life I’ve felt obliged to read the newspaper daily, to keep up with the news to be an informed voter. Lately, though, I find it necessary to spend more time outdoors and less time reading the news, almost to the point where the only news I get is through the Daily Show or Colbert Report. Unfortunately, you don’t have to be too informed to choose the lesser of two evils when it comes to voting, and that’s about the only opportunity I’ve had most of my life.

I also agree with Thoreau when he argues ...

the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality. Our very intellect shall be macadamized, as it were- its foundation broken into fragments for the wheels of travel to roll over; and if you would know what will make the most durable pavement, surpassing rolled stones, spruce blocks, and asphaltum, you have only to look into some of our minds which have been subjected to this treatment so long.

If we never ask the big questions, never question where are lives are going or where we want them to go but merely focus on the mundane issues that arise in our daily existence it seems impossible to control our own lives. Meanwhile, businesses and advertisers are more than happy to tell you what you should do to be happy.

It’s clear that Thoreau considers politics “trivial:”

What is called politics is comparatively something so superficial and inhuman, that practically I have never fairly recognized that it concerns me at all. The newspapers, I perceive, devote some of their columns specially to politics or government without charge; and this, one would say, is all that saves it; but as I love literature and to some extent the truth also, I never read those columns at any rate. I do not wish to blunt my sense of right so much. I have not got to answer for having read a single President's Message. A strange age of the world this, when empires, kingdoms, and republics come a-begging to a private man's door, and utter their complaints at his elbow! I cannot take up a newspaper but I find that some wretched government or other, hard pushed and on its last legs, is interceding with me, the reader, to vote for it ...

Considering that “Civil Disobedience” is one of his most famous works, I’m not sure that Thoreau really considered politics as trivial as he implies here, but I’m sure if he were living today he would reaffirm what he says here. Considering the state of Congress at the moment, it’s hard not to offer an “Amen.”

In the end, though, Thoreau’s main argument seems to be that we should be contemplating “the Eternities,” not simply worrying about the mundane details of ordinary life that threaten to overwhelm us:

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities. Conventionalities are at length as bad as impurities. Even the facts of science may dust the mind by their dryness, unless they are in a sense effaced each morning, or rather rendered fertile by the dews of fresh and living truth. Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven. ... Have we no culture, no refinement- but skill only to live coarsely and serve the Devil?- to acquire a little worldly wealth, or fame, or liberty, and make a false show with it, as if we were all husk and shell, with no tender and living kernel to us?

Thoreau’s essay reminds me of Vicktor Frankl’s message in Man’s Search for Meaning. In fact, if Thoreau had entitled his speech Life Without Meaning I would probably have been more receptive to what he says here. I’m always a little suspicious when I hear the word “principle” because many people define principle as: “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.” Phrases like “flashes of light from heaven” and “serve the devil” make me equally nervous. Still, I think all of us are apt to get caught up in the daily grind and lose sight of those things that are most important in our lives, those things that, in the end, will most contribute to our happiness.

4 thoughts on “Thoreau’s Life Without Principle

  1. Few in the UK have read anything of Thoreau beyond Walden, I think. This essay was certainly new to me, and both the quotations and your caveats from the viewpoint of a 21st century sympathiser resonate very strongly. Will certainly look for this. Thanks!

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