Thoreau: Life Without Principle

by Bob Schwartz

thoreau

Please read a little Henry David Thoreau if you have the chance. Maybe no American writer has made a plainer case for living a life of truth, a life of principle, a life that matters.

You may know of his most famous works.

There is Walden, about his choosing to live for a time in the woods, within nature and by himself (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”) There is Civil Disobedience, about determining how, when and why defying the powers that be is a conscientious imperative.

There is much more Thoreau beyond these (see Walden and Other Writings). Following are some brief excerpts from Life Without Principle, published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863.


In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while…. [Note: If you substitute “greatest number of followers” for “greatest number of letters”, you will see just how timely and relevant this is today.]

I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,—to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself….

Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not….

We may well be ashamed to tell what things we have read or heard in our day. I do not know why my news should be so trivial,—considering what one’s dreams and expectations are, why the developments should be so paltry. The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius. It is the stalest repetition….

Really to see the sun rise or go down every day, so to relate ourselves to a universal fact, would preserve us sane forever. Nations! What are nations? Tartars, and Huns, and Chinamen! Like insects, they swarm. The historian strives in vain to make them memorable. It is for want of a man that there are so many men. It is individuals that populate the world….

It requires more than a day’s devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.

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