Henry David Thoreau's Life Without Principle Essay

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Henry David Thoreau's Life Without Principle

Life Eschews Art

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In many ways, there are a number of contradictions that appear to have been present and existent with the literature and the actual life of Henry David Thoreau, the celebrated American author who is best known for composing the manuscript of Walden and "Civil Disobedience." Within his works of literature, the author oftentimes propagated stark, profound views that would have been difficult for anyone to actually incorporate and practice in daily life. For instance, Walden is largely about the responsibility and the exertion of the individual to live in accordance with nature. Yet Thoreau was constantly aided by the help of others within his own life, and was the recipient of the largess of his friend and fellow literary magnate, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The contradictions between his literary views and actual life are myriad and profound -- the impetus for "Civil Disobedience" was partially related to the author's jailing for failing to pay taxes, and while the essay would encourage such antisocial behavior, Thoreau, in the meantime, was freed due to an aunt paying his debt. Yet the biggest contradiction within Thoreau's literature and personal life is demonstrated after reading the idealistic "Life Without Principle," in which the author took on a number of issues of society and existence -- related to money and responsibility to nature and one's fellow man -- that contrasted sharply with his own life. Unfortunately, the author was not able to live up to his own words regarding a life of simplicity and minimalism, as a closer examination of the author's background and "Life Without Principle" readily indicates.

Essay on Henry David Thoreau's Life Without Principle Assignment

Such an examination, of course, was initially proposed by the author during the composition of this essay and was asked of the many who heard him deliver it as a lecture on a number of occasions. "Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives" (Thoreau 1854) the author offers. However, a close analysis of the syntax of this passage (specifically the plurality of the pronoun we) as well as an examination of several notable events in the author's own life) suggest that he was really applying these principles of introspection to others, and not to himself. It is quite possible that many of the concepts propagated by the author in "Life Without Principle" were intended to be reserved for and to affect others, and not Thoreau himself. For instance, one of the central themes of this piece of literature contend that it is shameful for men to live off chance or fortunate circumstances, and not their own distinct industry. The following quotation indicates that the author had a fairly low esteem of people who depended on such circumstances as the means of their living.

The lesson of value which money teaches, which the Author of the Universe has taken so much pains to teach us, we are inclined to skip altogether. As for the means of living, it is wonderful how indifferent men of all classes are about it…whether they inherit, or earn, or steal it… Cold and hunger seem more friendly to my nature than those methods which men have adopted and advise to ward them off (Thoreau 1854).

This quotation demonstrates how in his writing, Thoreau was opposed to living off of the means of another. Furthermore, the author indicates that he would rather suffer several inconveniences of life "cold and hunger" rather than "inherit" a means to making a living.

However, analysis of Thoreau's personal life is decidedly at variance with these precepts which are found in "Life Without Principle." Even a casual observation of the author's relationship with Emerson indicates that Thoreau was definitely "indifferent to his means of earning a living, or, perhaps even preferred living at the expense of another. Thoreau owes much of his career, and of his life, to his friendship with Emerson. In all actuality, the nature of the relationship between the two men was almost one of patronage, as Thoreau benefitted immensely from Emerson's fortune and literary contracts. It is a well-known fact, for instance, that Thoreau lived for seven years on Emerson's property. He first relocated there shortly after finishing his education at the young age of 24 (Cheever 2006, 1990). A substantial part of his education was spent at Harvard University; subsequent to his completing his studies, there were a number of trades he could have chosen to pursue that would have been worthy of someone with his academic background. He could have pursued a career in law or medicine or some other solid field in which he could have earned plenty of money to finance his own dwellings on his own property. However, once the author gained the friendship -- and ensuing patronage and financial support of Emerson, which was readily augmented by the support of his own family -- there was no need to pursue these undertakings. The author was content to spend what some may consider his formative years as an artist and writer, living in Emerson's dwellings and on his property, occasionally working as a tutor for some of the latter's family members. Such means of earning a living were definitely not propagated by the author in his definitive texts, most noticeably "Life Without Principle."

Moreover, a significant part of Thoreau's literary career was actually owed to his relationship with Emerson as well. Walden was one of two actual books that were published by the author during his brief life of 44 years. The typical view of Walden is that Thoreau decided to lock himself away in the confines of nature in order to observe its effect (he was well versed in the Transcendental ideology propagated by Emerson and others during this epoch) upon himself and his writing. However, it is highly significant to note that the property with which Thoreau lived in the simple log cabin while he was able to compose Walden was actually owned by Emerson. Not only would Thoreau take advantage of Emerson's property, but he would also borrow heavily from his professional ideas regarding publication. It was Emerson's advice to the young author that led to Thoreau's self-publishing Walden. Furthermore, the author was able to self-publish the manual with a considerable amount of assistance from James Munroe, who was a regular publisher of Emerson's work.

One may view this heavy reliance upon the finances and literary perspective of one of America's confirmed great authors as natural, and perhaps even beneficial to the career of a young literary upstart such as Thoreau. However, all of this compensation that the author received from his affable relationship with Emerson stands in contrast to the ideals he disseminated in "Life Without Principle." Perhaps if the author was not quite so critical of the proclivities of others towards earning their living, his literature would not make him appear to be so hypocritical. but, as the following quotation indicates, with passages that were so judgmental in the methods of others, it is only natural that the author himself would suffer from the same criticism.

The rush to California, for instance, and the attitude…in relation to it, reflect the greatest disgrace on mankind. 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 (Thoreau 1854).

There are several aspects of this quotation that can be applied to Thoreau's own life. Although he spent a great deal of time writing, the fact that he only published a pair of books during his lifetime suggests that his output was far from prodigious. Furthermore, his treatises on government had very… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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