Life Without Principle
I love the writings of Henry David Thoreau. He's the sanest man I ever read, a natural voice of reality in a civilization based on shams and delusions. I re-read his works on a regular basis to ground myself in the bedrock of existence, as if I were taking an antidote to the poison of modern life.
(I lost all respect for Robert Louis Stevenson when I read he had once called Thoreau a "skulker" because Thoreau refused to conform to social expectations he didn't believe in. Stevenson conformed to the "ideals" of his day by retiring to Samoa, where he could lord it over the native population.)
"Civil Disobedience" is considered Thoreau's best essay, but I like "Life Without Principle" even better. The former concerns itself with the political and ethical relationship of the individual to government while the latter deals with a subject that Thoreau notes is rarely if ever discussed by philosophers -- making a living. This is a strange omission "for there is no such thing as wisdom not applied to life," Thoreau writes. "If making a living is not altogether glorious, then living is not."
Thoreau begins the heart of the essay with a blunt statement: "As the time is short, I will leave out all the flattery and retain all the criticism. Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.
"This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awakened almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. But it is nothing but work, work, work ... If a man was tossed out of a window when an infant and so made a cripple for life, 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 your money almost without exception lead downward. If you traded in messages from heaven, the whole curse of business would attach to it. 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 his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself.
"The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get 'a good job,' but to perform well a certain work ... The community has no bribe that will tempt a wise man. An efficient and valuable man does what he can, whether the community pays him for it or not.
"Those services which the community will most readily pay for [are] most disagreeable to render. You are paid for being something less than a man ... You cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations with your employer because it will reduce your value in the labor marketplace.
"If I should sell my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I will never thus sell my birthright [freedom] for a mess of pottage."
My favorite line from the essay is this: "You must get your living by loving." I quake in my shoes every time I read that line. What a revolutionary idea! How many people love their jobs so much they would continue doing them if they weren't paid? "It is remarkable that there are few men so well employed," Thoreau writes, "but that a little more money or fame would commonly buy them off from their present pursuit."
Thoreau was well aware of the war of ideas between socialism and capitalism in the mid-1800s, a war that continues to this day. It is a fight over who is entitled to the surplus value of labor, as Karl Marx would later call it. Surplus value is the work done by a laborer that goes beyond securing the basic necessities of life.
Thoreau's answer was to live as simply as possible so no surplus value is created for the worker and the capitalist to fight about. Thoreau admits this is a difficult path for people to follow if they want marriage and children, but says his own "greatest asset is to want but little."
What do most people want out of life if not happiness? But they labor under a delusion. What they really want is more -- more money and all the things that money can buy because they think this buys more life. But life is precisely what they give up in order to make more money. It's a vicious circle leading to nowhere.
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa