What was Thoreau’s philosophy on work in "Life Without Principle"?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In "Life Without Principle," Thoreau distinguishes between what he calls at various points "honest" labor, and the types of work that were becoming more and more common during his life, especially wage labor. Thoreau suggested that laborers ought to be motivated by something beyond simply earning a living:

The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get "a good job," but to perform well a certain work...Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.

As he had argued elsewhere, Thoreau was concerned that modern society was removing meaning from people's lives, and he thought that the discipline of modern work, in which people literally traded their time and labor for money, was making this effect worse. Work, the central fact of people's lives for milennia, was now an act performed with no reward beyond money. Just as important, he argued, their work provided no real benefit to society, and on this point he especially disapproved of speculators and financiers who profited off nothing more than risking capital. Thoreau describes in particular the grasping culture of the California gold rush, describing it as embodying everything wrong with modern society:

The gold-digger is the enemy of the honest laborer, whatever checks and compensations there may be. It is not enough to tell me that you worked hard to get your gold. So does the Devil work hard.

Wealth was being created at the expense of men's souls. This is the aspect of work that Throeau vehemently opposed in "Life Without Principle."

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