Lives Without Principle: Thoreau and Our Complex Times

As you may know, recently I finally got down to reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Thoureau had fascinated me since I studied some of his essays in university, mostly because I believe he’s one of the few thinkers who really put his money where his mouth was: his lifestyle was always coherent with his words.

What Thoreau had in mind when he decided to live in the woods in Massachussets could not be more relevant in our times. Reading Walden made me want to revisit the first essay I read by him: “Life Without Principle”. What he writes there is very relevant in our turbulent times.

Henry David Thoreau

In “Life Without Principle”, Thoreau speaks of how America evolved after the Independence, making industry and commerce its main focus and pushing art and philosophy to the side. What Thoreau defends agains this way of living is the idea of working for something we can actually find true to our selves. Only a job that doesn’t ask of us to look away from our dignity and that of those around us can lead us to the truth, a truth we find looking into ourselves.

Every day I see it more and more that my friends and acquaintances start working at things they don’t believe in and don’t even enjoy, just to get a check every month. And it pays off, I guess, if you can live your life numbly five days a week to get a nice holiday every year. Every Monday on social media I realize most people I know do not enjoy what they do, some of them even work for companies or organisations they know are not good for our society or our environment, but their goal is to make it to Friday and save some money and have some fun and hopefully find a job they enjoy more, or retire young.

What Thoreu would find problematic about this lifestyle is that it turns people into slaves. Thinking, for example, about the fast-fashion industry and how many jobs it generates—from CEOs and accountants, to people in retail, to people in actual sweatshops—: thousands and thousands of people working towards a goal that is doing more harm than good. But they all are capable to look away from the issue and from themselves: for a check that will pay a condo, a rent, food for their families. Such labour, a job that requires you to numb your conscience, induces a kind of slavery—slavery to consumerism— that makes it harder for people to seek true meaning in their lives.

“What is it to be born free and not to live free? What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom? Is it a freedom to be slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast?”

Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”

It is a vicious circle, and it doesn’t only apply harmful industries, the same can be said of banks or political organisations or what have you. For in order to survive, one must give up their individuality; in order to achieve economic freedom, one compromises his or her youth and strenght and, worst of all, conscience, in the hope that one day one will be free to do as one pleases. Thoreau points out examples such as the Gold Rush and the trade of slaves, but we can find plenty of contemporary examples.

But how can we end this? You’re probably wondering that now and I wondered that when I read the essay. And Thoreau says: “I do not make an exorbitant demand, surely.” Is it doable then? Could we all, each one of us, work at something we not only enjoy, but respect because it makes us better and the world around us better? I believe we can, that at any rate we can begin now to change and to think twice if that which bring us immediate joy or comfort—a paycheck or some jeans— is really good for ourselves and those around us. I don’t think it is easy, but I think it is possible. Hard as hell because it’s easier to switch your conscience off from 9 to 5 than struggling 24/7 to make ends meet. But it’s possible.

Thoreau would say we should treat our minds as something sacred, that is also a great start. It is hard to think of these changes in the big picture, specially because there are many people who do not have a choice, but what about us who have the time to write and read blogs and books and use social media? It is not an exorbitant demand, indeed, if we start with small changes. What Thoreau would ask of us, I dare say, is that we follow the beat of our own drum, that we dare disagree and struggle if we find that our circumstances do not agree with who we are, that we break the rules if we find that the rules offend our dignity, or the dignity of our brothers and sisters, as human beings.

“At any rate, I might pursue some path, however solitary and narrow and crooked, in which I could walk with love and reverence. Wherever a man separates from the multitude, and goes his own way in this mood, there indeed is a fork in the road, though ordinary travellers may see only a gap in the paling. His solitary path across lots will turn out the higher way of the two.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”
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