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Notes on "Life Without Principle," by Henry David Thoreau
Transcript of Notes on "Life Without Principle," by Henry David Thoreau
Don’t make religions and other such institutions the sort of intellectual comfort zone that prevents you from entertaining ideas that aren’t to be found there.
Don’t cheat yourself by working primarily for a paycheck. If what you do with your life free-of-charge is so worthless to you that you’d be convinced to do something else in exchange for a little money or fame, you need better hobbies.
Furthermore, don’t hire someone who’s only in it for the money.
Sustain yourself by the life you live, not by exchanging your life for money and living off that.
It is a shame to be living off an inheritance, charity, a government pension, or to gamble your way to prosperity – either through a lottery or by such means as prospecting for gold.
Remember that what is valuable about a thing is not the same as how much money it will fetch on the market.
Don’t waste conversation and attention on the superficial trivialities and gossip of the daily news, but attend to things of more import: “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”
Similarly, politics is something that ought to be a minor and discreet part of life, not the grotesque public sport it has become.
Don’t mistake the march of commerce for progress and civilization – especially when that commerce amounts to driving slaves to produce the articles of vice like alcohol and tobacco. There’s no shortage of gold, of tobacco, of alcohol, but there is a short supply of “a high and earnest purpose." opening paragraph AT a lyceum, not long since, I felt that the lecturer had chosen a theme too foreign to himself, and so failed to interest me as much as he might have done. He described things not in or near to his heart, but toward his extremities and superficies. There was, in this sense, no truly central or centralizing thought in the lecture. I would have had him deal with his privatest experience, as the poet does. The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer. I am surprised, as well as delighted, when this happens, it is such a rare use he would make of me, as if he were acquainted with the tool. Commonly, if men want anything of me, it is only to know how many acres I make of their land,—since I am a surveyor,—or, at most, what trivial news I have burdened myself with. They never will go to law for my meat; they prefer the shell. A man once came a considerable distance to ask me to lecture on Slavery; but on conversing with him, I found that he and his clique expected seven-eighths of the lecture to be theirs, and only one-eighth mine; so I declined. I take it for granted, when I am invited to lecture anywhere,—for I have had a little experience in that business,—that there is a desire to hear what I think on some subject, though I may be the greatest fool in the country,—and not that I should say pleasant things merely, or such as the audience will assent to; and I resolve, accordingly, that I will give them a strong dose of myself. They have sent for me, and engaged to pay for me, and I am determined that they shall have me, though I bore them beyond all precedent. What does Thoreau say about business? 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! Historical Contexts Mexican war
14th Amendment This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive.(1) 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 scared 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. The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse. If the laborer gets no more than the wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself. If you would get money as a writer or lecturer, you must be popular, which is to go down perpendicularly. Those services which the community will most readily pay for, it is most disagreeable to render. You are paid for being something less than a man. That so many are ready to live by luck, and so get the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky, without contributing any value to society! And that is called enterprise! I know of no more startling development of the immorality of trade, and all the common modes of getting a living. The philosophy and poetry and religion of such a mankind are not worth the dust of a puffball.