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

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Life Without Principle," Thoreau aims to lecture on how people spend their lives. He begins his discussion of work by saying the following:

This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked 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. It is nothing but work, work, work.

Obviously, Thoreau is commenting on the American obsession with work and industry; he believes that men should spend more time "at leisure," taking breaks and enjoying them.

Thoreau addresses the bias against those who enjoy leisure. For example, he may be called "an idler" or "a loafer" if he walks in the woods just for the pleasure of being out in nature, while a man who "works" in nature will be praised and lauded for his efforts. Thoreau also speaks out against jobs that allow men to make money, saying that the qualities that earn the money also make other, more important characteristics, turn "downward." For example, a writer who makes money can only do so by achieving popularity, which Thoreau suggests leads to a downward trend in the quality of the writer's works. 

Thoreau also defines what he thinks is the best goal for a worker:

The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get "a good job," but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends. Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.

Thoreau believes work should not be financially motivated; rather, the worker should want to become skilled at his task. He values those who love their work over those who work simply for the money they will earn. 

Later in the essay, Thoreau writes,

When we want culture more than potatoes, and illumination more than sugar-plums, then the great resources of a world are taxed and drawn out, and the result, or staple production, is, not slaves, nor operatives, but men—those rare fruits called heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, and redeemers.

Thoreau clearly wants men to aspire to higher ambitions than to make money or have things. He thinks people should desire abstract entities, like "culture" and "illumination," and that those aspirations are what make men "heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, and redeemers."

In the essay, Thoreau establishes the status quo: work and financial success are favored over leisure and "illumination" of a more abstract kind. Thoreau obviously is a non-conformist and finds himself in the opposite camp.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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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