Book Review: Life Without Principle (Henry David Thoreau)

Life Without Principle, an essay by Henry David Thoreau, was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863. It briefly encapsulates much the same argument in favor of individuality and nonconformism that Thoreau championed in his classic memoir Walden, without all the attention paid to natural phenomena. Here Thoreau focuses strictly on human nature and how one should conduct him- or herself in society. In tackling the question of how to live an ethical and happy life, Thoreau, as always, proves himself a wise and insightful teacher.

He begins by talking about business. He points out that too many people are busy working to make a living when they should be working to make a life. One who is engaged in work he doesn’t enjoy is trading away his life for a paycheck, or “sell[ing his] birthright for a mess of pottage.” A better strategy would be to find work that one enjoys doing and do it for the satisfaction of doing it, the money being merely icing on the cake. The natural and eternal joys of life rarely have a high monetary value; instead, far too much effort is expended on material trivialities in the pursuit of keeping up with the Joneses. The more one lives his life according to his own nature, disregarding the popular conception of fortune, the happier and richer he will be.

Thoreau’s doctrine in this essay sounds a lot like the teachings of the ancient Stoic philosophers Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, who urged their students to take a rational, detached look at what was truly important in life. One should distinguish between those occurrences in life over which he has control and those over which he does not have control, focus on the significance of the former, and disregard the distraction of the latter. After thoroughly discussing business and financial matters, Thoreau applies his rational individualism to science and philosophy, religion, journalism, slavery, and politics. The latter category is where Thoreau perhaps diverges the furthest from ancient Stoicism. The Stoics encouraged active involvement in civic life, while Thoreau advocates a deliberate abstention from public affairs. Though on social issues Thoreau was a liberal, as far as politics go he was a libertarian. If everyone were to take care of himself and get his own house in order, he suggests, we would have no need for politics at all.

Thoreau’s vision of life in accordance with nature does not seem as attainable as it may have been a century and a half ago. I’m not sure I would want to live in a society where everyone behaved according to Thoreau’s precepts. Nevertheless, I’m glad there’s a Thoreau, and I think we can all learn a lot from him. We could all stand to take a step back and think about what’s important in life, reconsider the importance of our lives outside of work, waste less time on the pointless trivialities of news and social media (“Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”), and cultivate our own person rather than slavishly live our lives in response to others’ opinions or conventions. Overall, Life Without Principle is one of Thoreau’s most accessible pieces of writing. Despite references to gold prospectors and slavery, most of the issues he discusses reflect universal aspects of human nature that are still very much applicable to life in the 21st century. This essay will take up less than an hour of your time, and the food for thought Thoreau serves up makes it an hour well spent.

Credit: Karl Janssen

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