What Is a Summary of “Life Without Principle” by Henry David Thoreau?

In his essay “Life Without Principle,” Henry David Thoreau explores how people live their daily lives and earn a living, arguing against the country’s wage system. He calls commerce and politics “soulless and debasing” and suggests that individuals focus more on the everyday wonders of life.

A laborer robs himself by working solely for money, Thoreau argues in “Life Without Principles.” He illustrates his opposition to doing this with stories of men he allegedly knows, such as a man planning to build a bank wall beneath his home and a neighbor who plows his land every morning. His essay describes the inherent riches in walking alone in the woods or earning an education. Though neither yield measurable wages, Thoreau argues that a grain of wisdom is worth more than a grain of gold.

He writes that a life without poetry and philosophy is as dehumanizing as slavery, and that tying self-worth and real worth to hard work is a form of slavery. A laborer frees himself by performing a certain work well or working because he loves the work, not because he needs to earn a living. True living, Thoreau writes, is not measured in wages but in how a laborer chooses to spend his time. Thoreau acknowledges that America is unlikely to change how it values hard work. He admits that he writes from a unique position of not needing to work for wages, but that should he need more than he does, he’d go to work, even knowing in advance how little he’d have left to live for.

Thoreau also rails against politics, politicians and political aspirations. He considers politicians and legislation in part responsible for turning America into a slave state, and suggests that doing away with taxes and much of the country’s military would go a long way toward better aligning a laborer’s work with his true aspirations.