Life Without Principle by Henry David Thoreau

A man should speak about those things which he cares about, that which is closest to his heart – like poets do. Likewise, a man should address his readers about matters which are relevant to them. Therefore, let us talk about our society, leaving flattery aside, but retaining all the criticism. Let us consider the ways in which we spend our lives.


1. The World (or Business)

The world is a busy place. What infinite bustle! Every night, I am awakened by the sounds of the city, its traffic and lights. It interrupts my dreams. Work and more work, but is there no room for peace?

If a child is dropped while still young, it is considered a tragedy. Not because he would no longer be able to write, philosophize, or read poetry, but because he would no longer be “productive” by our society’s standards. He would no longer be “industrious.”

I was recently invited to join another “industrious” man in an entrepreneurial venture. With my help, he believed we could both make some “good money.” The man was already rich, however, he desired that his heirs should have morewith to foolishly spend.

If I had agreed, I would have been commended as being a “hardworking” and “industrious” citizen. However, if I instead choose to spend my time doing less “productive” things, I am considered an idler.

But I will not be regulated by such a “policy of meaningless labor.” I am determined, adamant, obstinate, dare I say intransigent to make sure my time is spent as I see fit!

Certainly, if the man’s undertaking were of true value, I would have taken it under consideration. However, as it were nothing more than another entrepreneurial scheme which such “industrious men” seek to render upon the world, I was happy to leave it to someone else.

For there are many who are willing to turn the wheels of the world.


2. Nature (or Capitalism)

If a man were to walk through the woods, enjoying the fresh air, sun basking on his face, the grass crisp beneath his toes, he would soon be viewed as a loafer.

However, if there is a great big logger, who cuts down trees twelve at a time with his machinery and appliance, set out to make the earth bald before its time, he is soon recognized as an “industrious and enterprising citizen.” Indeed, a national hero!

As if the forests were only of interest to men in order to be cut down.

Likewise, if men were employed to toss a stone back and forth over a wall, this too would be considered a good use of time. “Industry.” “Production.”

And in fact, this is just the type of work in which many men are now employed.

I was walking through town the other day when I came across a team of hard working men. Sweat dripping from their brow, muscles taught – good honest work! The type of work America wants, the type of work America needs! Industry! Production!

But what exactly were they doing?

None other than building a mansion for a wealthy tycoon, a weekend getaway, with eight bedrooms and four garages, and a water fountain that would make a swan swoon.

Is this the “production” our country cares so much about? Is this the pinnacle of our civilization, that which are laws are designed to protect? Is this to which I should aspire?


3. Money (or Desire)

To make money, one must always involve himself in some form of corruption. For when we perform a service only for the sake of money, we are no longer doing “honest” work.

Indeed, if the laborer gets no more than his wage, he has been cheated – for he has cheated himself.

We are paid the most for that which is most disagreeable to us. We are paid to be less than a man. Even the artist, once he has shown himself to be of some “value,” is soon pulled away from the purity of his craft for the sake of corporate interests.

I am a surveyor. Recently, I came to the realization that my employers do not want me to do the “best job,” merely the one which results in them having the “most” land.

Likewise, I have came up with a new means for measuring wood. However, when I tell sellers about it, they say their wood is already being measured too correctly, and so they go to the town over to get it “better” measured.


4. Love (or Bread)

One should work not merely to gain his daily wage, but to perform a certain task with excellence. Do not hire the man who works for money, but who works out of pride and love.

It amazes me how few men truly enjoy what they do for a living, such that they could not be bought off with a little money or fame.

We see advertisements all the time for active young men, as if “activity” were the whole of their worth! I myself, a grown man, am often encouraged to embark on this or that new enterprise, as if what I am currently doing was not important. Thank you, but I am already “employed.”

No bribe can tempt the wise man. You may raise enough money to tunnel through a mountain, but you cannot hire the man who is minding his own business!


5. Freedom (or Pottage)

When a man is excellent at something, he does it whether he is paid or not.

However, those who are inefficient seek to sell their inefficiency to the highest bidder.

Excuse my impatience, but I am terribly jealous of my freedom. Fortunately, I am still able to gain my daily bread by a means which does not seem like a chore. Indeed, my needs are simple, and so simply met.

However, I can see clearly that if I were to desire more, I would need to find another form of employment – one involving drudgery.

But if I were to sell my mornings as well as my afternoons to society, I’m afraid I would have nothing left! No, I will not sell my birthright for a bowl of pottage.

Many men work hard, but are they spending their time well? There is no greater mistake than to spend most of your life trying to earn a living. We must do what we love. Unfortunately, this is too often not the case.


6. Work (or Honesty)

To be supported by family, friends, or the government – call it what you will, is none other than to have entered the almshouse.

There are many men who spend more than what they earn. Like Catholics, they confess their sins, then start back up again.

And so, men lie on their backs and talk of the fall, without making any effort to get up!

Most men shoot at point-blank range, picking targets on their own level. But I prefer to aim a bit higher than the horizon.

It amazes me that in the history of literature, there is so little written about how to make a good and honest living. It is as if man forgot not only to reflect on how he makes his ends meet, but also on what his ends are in the first place!

Indeed, man does not live on bread alone! For the man whose goal is to make a living does not truly live.

Perhaps, most men are too disgusted to speak about their experiences. Have we not yet learned the lessons which money does teach? Do we still not realize that only by earning an honest living may we be employed by greatness?

To most people, what matters is not how you make your money, only how much. However, I find cold and hunger more friendly than the means by which most men ward them off!


7. Life (or Wisdom)

A man cannot be wise if he does not know how to live better than other men. For wisdom is more than cunning and intelligence. Certainly, wisdom is greater than the grinding of the logician’s mill.

Is there such a thing as wisdom not applied to life? No, wisdom teaches by example.

A man’s wisdom is shown not in what he says, but in what he does. For in every action, one does and does not. Surely, the wise man has better ways to spend his time than making money.

Did Plato live better than other men merely by putting on airs, or because his aunt remembered him in his will?

Many men make their living at the expense of the real business of life, in part because they don’t know – in part because they don’t want to.


8. Gold (or Lottery)

The rush to California is a disgrace to mankind. So many men are willing to pick up and leave, hoping to strike it rich, so that one day they may be masters over those who were less fortunate than themselves.

Such men have neither acquired a life worth living, nor know what life is worth living for.

The great lottery, is this “American enterprise?” The man who mines the earth in search of precious metals and shiny things is not fit to keep company with the hog who roots through the soil. If I had all the wealth in the world, I would not pay for such terrestrial rape.

In search of riches, man disrespects nature – his own, as well as that beneath his feet.

Is this what the earth has become? A raffle? Is God merely a moneyed gentleman hiding gold and gems for us to find as if they were Easter Eggs? Is this our famed “entrepreneurial spirit?”

No, this is none other than gilded greed and lust. For the greatest invention of mankind is certainly not an improved muck-rake!

This plunder is not the ground upon which East and West are intended to meet. The earth was not meant to be dug up, but for planting seeds. We are not meant to carelessly cut down trees, but to breathe their air and recycle it back according to the harmonious workings of nature.

With all the world’s hunger and poverty, what will fill our bellies? Golden leaves?

The man who sifts through the earth in search of treasure, hoping the ups and downs of the day will bring him good fortune, is no less a gambler than the man in the San Francisco saloon. What difference does it make if you shake dirt or dice?

Win, and society loses.

The gold-digger is the enemy of the honest laborer. It is not enough to say you’ve worked hard for your gold. The Devil works hard too. The life of the criminal is not without its concerns.

To find gold is to hit the lottery. Don’t tell me that’s honest work!

What lottery have you bought into?


9. Mine (or Yours)

The gold miner works day and night underground, in crowded tunnels, digging a hundred and six feet before striking a vein, or missing it altogether. Demons, men become inconsiderate of each other’s needs, thirsty for riches. Dying daily of exposure and disease, drowning in muddy waters, they become entombed in their mines.

Why do we kill ourselves for our work? Why do we not seek the gold which is inside ourselves?

When we begin to separate from the multitude, we are soon met by a fork in the road. In choosing our way, we take the higher path.

There are many preachers but few moral teachers. The prophets are employed for the sake of excusing the ways of men. Our elders tell us not to worry, there is nothing you can do.

“You can’t change the world.” Don’t worry how your bread is buttered.

But I say, it is better to starve than to lose your innocence to gain your daily bread. Within every sophisticated man, let there be an unsophisticated one, striving to live by those higher virtues.


10. Sublimity (or Religion)

There is hardly an “intellectual” out there who is liberal enough to allow you to think in his company. Most soon stick firm to some institution in which they have staked their claim, theirparticular way of viewing things.

They continually thrust their roofs, with its narrow skylight, between you and the sky. Cobwebs, out of my way! Wash your windows, for I desire to see the heavens!

Men ask “Where did you come from” and “Where are you going?” But I ask, “Who are you” and “What are your intentions?”

The best of men are not serene; they dwell in forms. As we build our houses on stone, so let us build ourselves on granite truths.

For what is the man who is not coexistent with pure and sublime truths?

For all our manner and dress, we not teach each other the lessons of honesty and sincerity, which even animals know. We do not teach other steadfastness and solidity, which even rocks possess.

The fact is mutual, for we do not demand such things of each another.


11. Elephants (or Gossip)

Men no longer stand for truth. They merely band together, leaning on one another, and all on nothing; just as the Hindu has made the world to rest on an elephant, the elephant itself to rest on a tortoise, the tortoise to rest on a serpent, and the serpent to rest on nothing at all.

We pick the fruit of the tree without roots.

Our conversations are hollow. Surface meeting only surface. We no longer cherish our private lives, our conversations degenerate into gossip. Rarely do we see a man willing to tell us anything he hasn’t read in the paper, or been told by someone else.

Indeed, the only difference between ourselves and him is that he has already read the paper and we haven’t!

The more out of touch we become with ourselves, the more interested we become in the superficial “news” of others.

Indeed, the man with the greatest number of posts often has not been listening to himself.


12. News (or Mushrooms)

To read the paper every week is too much. I’ve tried it, but I am soon overwhelmed. The sun, the moon, the clouds and trees do not have so much to say!

Words upon words. But you cannot possess two masters. For it takes more than a day’s devotion to possess the wealth and knowledge of the day.

Most of our news is not worthy of us. It is stale repetition. Why must we keep hearing the same things? Have we not budged even an inch?

Floating in our atmosphere, insignificant facts, sporules of fungi, impinging themselves on our neglected thalluses, the open spaces of our minds, to begin their parasitic growth.

Let us wash clean of these views! Our planet may explode, but let it do so with character. Let us live for more than just idle amusement.

Do not run around the corner to see the world blow up.


13. Walk (or War)

Walk in the fields, and you will encounter many meaningful incidents. Do not concern yourself with the affairs of Europe, but with your own Massachusetts.

Live and move in that thin stratum of events, thinner than paper, in which realness transpires.

Fill your world with world. Soar above, dive below – for the sun also rises.

Be a witness to the news of the world, unspoken in words, and you will find the sanity of universal fact, rather than the insanity of mortal ramblings.

Chinamen, Kossacks. Insects. The historian strives in vain to make men memorable. It is for want of “men” we create “other men.”

But it is individuals who populate the world! The thinking man says, “I look down from the heights of all nations, it is nothing but ash. Calm dwells here in the clouds.”

Pleasant are the fields at rest.

Let us not be drawn by dogs throughout life, Esquimo-esque over hill and dale, to bite the ears of our fellow man.


14. Mind (or Dust)

I am afraid when I realize just how much of men’s trivialities I have allowed to become a part of my own life. Rubbish, idle rumors, insignificant instances trumped up and broadcasted for all to hear. Intrusions on the mind, sacred ground.

Has the mind become nothing more than a public square, a table for tea-time gossip?

We have forgotten that our minds are the corners of the heavens? They are our temples. It is hard enough to relieve ourselves of those facts which are necessary for life, in order to have a moment of true experience, let alone to unburden ourselves of the claims of others.

May our minds be chaste, so as not to degenerate into bar-room antics, dirt and peanut shells, hustle and bust. For this is nothing more than intellectual and moral suicide!

Our ears were not meant to be used as fishing nets, catching everything in their past. Our heads were not meant to be overcrowded rooms, out hats keeping in the steam.

Free your ears of dust, so that you will have time to make your hands clean. For it is hard to forget what is useless to remember.


15. Convention (or Parnass)

If I am to travel, I prefer to go over mountain passes and Parnassian streams, than to trudge through town gutters. Our ears are capable of both receiving voices from heaven, as well as being dragged through the matters of courtrooms and bar-room brawls.

To whom do you listen?

Our minds are permanently tainted by drivel, our thoughts forever tinged with triviality. Macadamized, our minds lay broken, fragmented by the wheels of those who freely pass – the most durable pavements showing the most tread marks.

Don’t tread over me! For my mind is still fertile pasture, and I would like to keep it that way!

As our minds have been desecrated, so they must now be re-consecrated. Our minds are innocent children; we are their guardians.

Be careful the objects to which you pay attention. Read the Eternities, not the Times.

Convention, impure truth, even the dusts of scientific fact makes the mind dry if not invigorated by the dews of living truth.

For knowledge comes not in the details, but in flashes of light!

Our thoughts carry with them their wear and tear, deeply formed ruts. What do you spend your energy on? Don’t you know, some peddling-carts are better to pass by?


16. America (or Acorn)

Where is our culture? Where is refinement? Is our only skill to better serve the Devil? To acquire a little wealth, worldly fame and freedom, only to make a false show of it? Are we husks and shells, or is there still a living kernel?

Our institutions are acorns, unopened, stabbing the foot of the man who dares to walk without shoes.

America, land of freedom? If we are free of political tyranny, do we not still remain enslaved to its brothers?

The Republic stands firm, but what about our selves?

We may be rid of King George, but are we not still slaves to King Prejudice? What does it feel like to be born free, but to live as a slave? What value is political freedom without the spirit of will?

Is it none other than the freedom of slaves of which we boast?

We are a nation of politicians. Only our children remain free; we tax ourselves. Taxation without representation, we are not all there. Quartered troops, fools and cattle.

Our bodies feed off our souls.


17. Culture (or Courtesy)

Culture, where did you go? We live in provinces, not the metropolitan. Our homes no longer our standards, we no longer worship truth, only its reflection. We have become warped and woofed by our devotion to trade, economy, manufactures and agriculture.

Indeed, we have forgotten that the means are not the ends.

Provincial English, country bumpkins, you betray yourselves! Nature subdued, your good breeding extends only to secondary objects.

But fine manners does not make up for a lack of fine intelligence!

You are the fashion of past days, courtseys and knee buckles. Vice is your dress, allowing character to remain undignified. Casts of clothes, shells, laying claim to the honor of past men and the respect of a living creature, while you are in fact neither.

The man who insists on thrusting his manners upon me introduces me to his cabinet of curiosities, when it was himself that I was interested in. The most splendid courtroom in all of Christendom was provincial, having the authority to consult Transalpine interests rather than the affairs of Rome.


18. Government (or Sugarplums)

Government, legislation, are these not meant to be respectable professions? But what respect is there in the breeding of slaves and tobacco? What does this partake of the divine? What do God’s children have to say of this, or are there none left in the 19th century?

Is the family dead? What shall Virginia speak in the last of days? On which foot is patriotism to stand?

Commerce that whitens the seas, sailors or slaves? I’ve seen vessels capsize, lives lost for the sake of their cargo: rags, juniper-berries and bitter almonds.

Is this the “free trade” for which we tempt our seas?

America sends to the Old World for her bitters. Are not the sea-brine and shipwrecks bitter enough to make our cup of life go down smooth?

We boast of commerce, statesmen and philosophers blindingly declare progress and civilization depend on such things – Flies and mosquitos.

Our government sends us to explore the Amazon, to extend our slavery and introduce industry to “backwards nations.” It is their resources we desire! Slavery! Tobacco!

When will we learn our greatest national resource is not such things, nor is it potatoes or sugarplums. The world has life to give, culture not slaves, men – rare fruit: heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, redeemers!