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“Life Without Principle” by Henry David Thoreau Essay

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Updated: Oct 1st, 2021


To begin with, it is necessary to emphasize that the central point of Thoreau’s “Life without principle” is the necessity to have the aim in every action performed and do not chase the evanescent values. The aim is the defining moment of any activity, and the rightness of its formulation presupposes the success of this action. Thoreau aims to challenge the values and goals of humanity’s readiness to trading, commerce, and globalization, which are aimed to lead to prosperity, but finally lead to the destruction of personality. (Cain, 2000) Those who devote too much time to their careers finally come to the personal misbalance, which may have various crucial consequences, and vice versa, those who work just for money can not be regarded as prospective workers, so there won’t be any success in the life. “We are warped and narrowed,” Thoreau highlights, “by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce, and manufacture and agriculture, which are but means, and not the end.” He asks whether people should not instead be placing as much emphasis and dedication to the mining of our inner being, of the spiritual man, as we do to the land and our material welfare. “Cold and hunger” he states, “seem friendlier to my nature than those methods which men have adopted and advice to ward them off.” (Chénetier, 1990).

Life in Thoreau’s definition is the process of self arrangement, of finding the balance between right and left, white and black… Consequently, the principle – is the rule, according to which this balance should be found, as everyone chooses his or her own. Life without principle is dangerous for going to extremes. (Thoreau, 2001).

Bartleby the Scrivener

One of the instances of such an extreme point may be observed in this novel. Bartleby is not interested in having the position of attorney, so he fails to cope with his assignments and refuses to cope with them properly. This tendency goes on to the point that, lastly, he completely ignores his direct obligations. But even though he does nothing, his employer is under some influence and can not fire him. The info, which Bartleby offered in the report, introducing himself, is enough to make the conclusion, as e is a man without any principle. “The easiest way of life,” he states, “is the best.” The easiest entail the entire absence of the aims, wishes, and preferences. (Davis, 1997) It can not be said whether he likes or dislikes his occupation: he is absolutely indifferent to everything that surrounds him, but he works just to satisfy the basic human requirements. But finally, he even refuses these requirements, as when he gets imprisoned, Bartleby refuses food and dies of starvation in a few days. So, he just appeared to be the man without any principles, as it was the easiest for him, and he never sought complex ways. (Melville, 1853).

According to Thoreau, Bartleby could survive only with the help of some unknown wonder, as someone with a similar life position can not survive in the law sphere, as lawyers are rather aggressive towards the competitors. Attorney’s attitude towards his or her work should be much more than the work and the means to live. It should be a way of life, from the viewpoint of Thoreau. (Thoreau, 2001).

“North Country” Movie and the Image of Whistleblower

The image of the whistleblower is attributed here to Josie Aimes – a single mother of two who has a strong aim. She works in a male-dominated business sphere, where the presence of women is not encouraged. Actually, she is interested not only in earning her own living and the living of her family, but it may be observed (though not emphasized) that she is interested in staying at this job. Finally, being sexually harassed and then physically attacked, she quits, as her life is more expensive than a good job. This is a bright example of the perfect personality balance, which is discussed before. Josie just has the aim to live for and had had the means of living this life before she quitted.

It should be emphasized that a human should not be a battery, which only works and is then disposed of. But it is also necessary to have some reasonable ambitions to gain success and not “go with the stream.” (Thoreau, 1863).


The opposition to Thoreau’s viewpoint may be identified in the “North Country,” as on the one hand, Josie lived according to the points stated in the “Life without Principle,” but still, she filed to gain success. On the other hand, Josie pays more attention to earn a living than to the working interest, but her life is balanced between love for her children and work. It is initially claimed that Thoreau is not right in some moments, like the financial necessity of poor men. He emphasizes this necessity, but he does not explain it from the viewpoint of his own statements and principles, and thus this point stays unclear.

But it does not mean that Thoreau is absolutely wrong. Some of his theses are clear and seem to be correct if applying to everyday life. Thus, he states, that there is no need to read the newspapers, as these are just a piece of paper with the information that will be forgotten sooner or later. He makes advice to pay more attention to classics, which is eternal, and will always stay actual for life (“Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”) (Thoreau, 1863).

Surely, there are lots of other principles and considerations, and the people who were interviewed mostly confirmed them. These are claimed not to aim to cheat, as cheating leads to the disappearing of interest in life (it is just like in a PC game: it is interesting until a player starts using cheat-codes). People who succeeded in their careers and who are happy in their life just found this principle for the balance, and it is seen without any interview. It is just enough to observe their behavior in order to realize that the principle is selected properly.


The principles, first issued in 1863, appear to be applicable for contemporary life. Actually, this criteria defines the eternity of the thought, and the thought that is eternal gets the rank of wisdom.


Cain, William E., ed. A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Chénetier, Marc. “Tinkering, Extravagance: Thoreau, Melville, and Annie Dillard.” Critique 31.3 (1990): 157-172.

Davis, Todd F. “The Narrator’s Dilemma in “Bartleby the Scrivener”: The Excellently Illustrated Re-statement of a Problem.” Studies in Short Fiction 34.2 (1997): 183.

Dilworth, Thomas. “Narrator of “Bartleby”: The Christian-Humanist Acquaintance of John Jacob Astor.” Papers on Language & Literature 38.1 (2002): 49.

Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener. A Story of Wall-street. 1853. Web.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Major Essays of Henry David Thoreau. Ed. Richard Dillman. Albany, NY: Whitston Publishing, 2001.

Thoreau, Henry David. Life without Principle. Atlantic monthly, v. 12, no. 72, 1863.

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