Henry David Thor­eau’s Life Without Principle ()

At a ly­ce­um, not long since, I felt that the lec­tur­er had cho­sen a theme too for­eign to him­self, and so failed to in­ter­est me as much as he might have done. He de­scribed things not in or near to his heart, but toward his ex­trem­i­ties and su­per­fi­cies. There was, in this sense, no tru­ly cen­tral or cen­tral­iz­ing thought in the lec­ture. I would have had him deal with his pri­vat­est ex­pe­ri­ence, as the po­et does. The great­est com­pli­ment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and at­tend­ed to my an­swer. I am sur­prised, as well as de­light­ed, when this hap­pens, it is such a rare use he would make of me, as if he were ac­quaint­ed with the tool. Com­mon­ly, if men want any­thing of me, it is on­ly to know how many acres I make of their land — since I am a sur­vey­or — or, at most, what triv­i­al news I have bur­dened my­self with. They nev­er will go to law for my meat; they pre­fer the shell. A man once came a con­sid­er­a­ble dis­tance to ask me to lec­ture on Slav­ery; but on con­vers­ing with him, I found that he and his clique ex­pect­ed sev­en eighths of the lec­ture to be theirs, and on­ly one eighth mine; so I de­clined. I take it for grant­ed, when I am in­vit­ed to lec­ture any­where — for I have had a lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence in that busi­ness — that there is a de­sire to hear what I think on some sub­ject, though I may be the great­est fool in the coun­try — and not that I should say pleas­ant things mere­ly, or such as the au­di­ence will as­sent to; and I re­solve, ac­cord­ing­ly, that I will give them a strong dose of my­self. They have sent for me, and en­gaged to pay for me, and I am de­ter­mined that they shall have me, though I bore them be­yond all prec­e­dent. [1]

So now I would say some­thing sim­i­lar to you, my read­ers. Since you are my read­ers, and I have not been much of a trav­el­ler, I will not talk about peo­ple a thou­sand miles off, but come as near home as I can. As the time is short, I will leave out all the flat­tery, and re­tain all the crit­i­cism. [2]

Let us con­sid­er the way in which we spend our lives. [3]

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. I can­not eas­i­ly buy a blank-book to write thoughts in; they are com­mon­ly ruled for dol­lars and cents. An Irish­man, see­ing me mak­ing a min­ute in the fields, took it for grant­ed that I was cal­cu­lat­ing my wag­es. If a man was tossed out of a win­dow when an in­fant, and so made a crip­ple for life, or scared out of his wits by the In­di­ans, it is re­gret­ted chief­ly be­cause he was thus in­ca­pac­i­tat­ed for busi­ness! I think that there is noth­ing, not even crime, more op­posed to po­et­ry, to phi­los­o­phy, ay, to life it­self, than this in­ces­sant busi­ness. [4]

There is a coarse and bois­ter­ous mon­ey-mak­ing fel­low in the out­skirts of our town, who is go­ing to build a bank-wall un­der the hill along the edge of his mead­ow. The pow­ers have put this in­to his head to keep him out of mis­chief, and he wish­es me to spend three weeks dig­ging there with him. The re­sult will be that he will per­haps get some more mon­ey to board, and leave for his heirs to spend fool­ish­ly. If I do this, most will com­mend me as an in­dus­tri­ous and hard-work­ing man; but if I choose to de­vote my­self to cer­tain la­bors which yield more real prof­it, though but lit­tle mon­ey, they may be in­clined to look on me as an idler. Nev­er­the­less, as I do not need the po­lice of mean­ing­less la­bor to reg­u­late me, and do not see an­y­thing ab­so­lute­ly praise­wor­thy in this fel­low’s un­der­tak­ing any more than in many an en­ter­prise of our own or for­eign gov­ern­ments, how­ev­er amus­ing it may be to him or them, I pre­fer to finish my ed­u­ca­tion at a dif­fer­ent school. [5]

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in dan­ger of be­ing re­gard­ed as a loaf­er; but if he spends his whole day as a spec­u­la­tor, shear­ing off those woods and mak­ing earth bald be­fore her time, he is es­teemed an in­dus­tri­ous and en­ter­pris­ing cit­i­zen. As if a town had no in­ter­est in its for­ests but to cut them down! [6]

Most men would feel in­sult­ed if it were pro­posed to em­ploy them in throw­ing stones over a wall, and then in throw­ing them back, mere­ly that they might earn their wag­es. But many are no more wor­thi­ly em­ployed now. For in­stance: just af­ter sun­rise, one sum­mer morn­ing, I no­ticed one of my neigh­bors walk­ing be­side his team, which was slow­ly draw­ing a heavy hewn stone swung un­der the ax­le, sur­round­ed by an at­mos­phere of in­dus­try — his day’s work be­gun — his brow com­menced to sweat — a re­proach to all slug­gards and idlers — paus­ing abreast the shoul­ders of his ox­en, and half turn­ing round with a flour­ish of his mer­ci­ful whip, while they gained their length on him. And I thought, Such is the la­bor which the Amer­i­can Con­gress ex­ists to pro­tect — hon­est, man­ly toil — hon­est as the day is long — that makes his bread taste sweet, and keeps so­ci­e­ty sweet — which all men re­spect and have con­se­crat­ed; one of the sa­cred band, doing the need­ful but irk­some drudg­ery. In­deed, I felt a slight re­proach, be­cause I ob­served this from a win­dow, and was not abroad and stir­ring about a sim­i­lar busi­ness. The day went by, and at eve­ning I passed the yard of an­oth­er neigh­bor, who keeps many ser­vants, and spends much mon­ey fool­ish­ly, while he adds noth­ing to the com­mon stock, and there I saw the stone of the morn­ing ly­ing be­side a whim­si­cal struc­ture in­tend­ed to adorn this Lord Tim­o­thy Dex­ter’s prem­is­es, and the dig­ni­ty forth­with de­part­ed from the team­ster’s la­bor, in my eyes. In my opin­ion, the sun was made to light wor­thi­er toil than this. I may add that his em­ploy­er has since run off, in debt to a good part of the town, and, af­ter pas­sing through Chan­cery, has set­tled some­where else, there to be­come once more a pa­tron of the arts. [7]

The ways by which you may get mon­ey al­most with­out ex­cep­tion lead down­ward. To have done an­y­thing by which you earned mon­ey mere­ly is to have been tru­ly idle or worse. If the la­bor­er gets no more than the wag­es which his em­ploy­er pays him, he is cheat­ed, he cheats him­self. If you would get mon­ey as a writ­er or lec­tur­er, you must be pop­u­lar, which is to go down per­pen­dic­u­lar­ly. Those ser­vic­es which the com­mu­ni­ty will most read­i­ly pay for, it is most dis­a­gree­a­ble to ren­der. You are paid for be­ing some­thing less than a man. The State does not com­mon­ly re­ward a gen­ius any more wise­ly. Even the po­et lau­re­ate would rath­er not have to cel­e­brate the ac­ci­dents of roy­al­ty. He must be bribed with a pipe of wine; and per­haps an­oth­er po­et is called away from his muse to gauge that very pipe. As for my own busi­ness, even that kind of sur­vey­ing which I could do with most sat­is­fac­tion my em­ploy­ers do not want. They would pre­fer that I should do my work coarse­ly and not too well, ay, not well enough. When I ob­serve that there are dif­fer­ent ways of sur­vey­ing, my em­ploy­er com­mon­ly asks which will give him the most land, not which is most cor­rect. I once in­vent­ed a rule for meas­ur­ing cord-wood, and tried to in­tro­duce it in Bos­ton; but the meas­ur­er there told me that the sel­lers did not wish to have their wood meas­ured cor­rect­ly — that he was al­ready too ac­cu­rate for them, and there­fore they com­mon­ly got their wood meas­ured in Charles­town be­fore cros­sing the bridge. [8]

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. [9]

It is re­mark­a­ble that there are few men so well em­ployed, so much to their minds, but that a lit­tle mon­ey or fame would com­mon­ly buy them off from their pres­ent pur­suit. I see ad­ver­tise­ments for ac­tive young men, as if ac­tiv­i­ty were the whole of a young man’s cap­i­tal. Yet I have been sur­prised when one has with con­fi­dence pro­posed to me, a grown man, to em­bark in some en­ter­prise of his, as if I had ab­so­lute­ly noth­ing to do, my life hav­ing been a com­plete fail­ure hith­er­to. What a doubt­ful com­pli­ment this to pay me! As if he had met me half-way across the ocean beat­ing up against the wind, but bound no­where, and pro­posed to me to go along with him! If I did, what do you think the un­der­writ­ers would say? No, no! I am not with­out em­ploy­ment at this stage of the voy­age. To tell the truth, I saw an ad­ver­tise­ment for able-bod­ied sea­men, when I was a boy, saun­ter­ing in my na­tive port, and as soon as I came of age I em­barked. [10]

The com­mu­ni­ty has no bribe that will tempt a wise man. You may raise mon­ey enough to tun­nel a moun­tain, but you can­not raise mon­ey enough to hire a man who is mind­ing his own busi­ness. An ef­fi­cient and val­u­a­ble man does what he can, wheth­er the com­mu­ni­ty pay him for it or not. The in­ef­fi­cient of­fer their in­ef­fi­cien­cy to the high­est bid­der, and are for­ev­er ex­pect­ing to be put in­to of­fice. One would sup­pose that they were rare­ly dis­ap­point­ed. [11]

Per­haps I am more than usu­al­ly jeal­ous with re­spect to my free­dom. I feel that my con­nec­tion with and ob­li­ga­tion to so­ci­e­ty are still very slight and tran­si­ent. Those slight la­bors which af­ford me a live­li­hood, and by which it is al­lowed that I am to some ex­tent ser­vice­a­ble to my con­tem­po­rar­ies, are as yet com­mon­ly a pleas­ure to me, and I am not of­ten re­mind­ed that they are a ne­ces­si­ty. So far I am suc­cess­ful. But I fore­see that if my wants should be much in­creased, the la­bor re­quired to sup­ply them would be­come a drudg­ery. If I should sell both my fore­noons and af­ter­noons to so­ci­e­ty, as most ap­pear to do, I am sure that for me there would be noth­ing left worth liv­ing for. I trust that I shall nev­er thus sell my birth­right for a mess of pot­tage. I wish to sug­gest that a man may be very in­dus­tri­ous, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fa­tal blun­der­er than he who con­sumes the great­er part of his life get­ting his liv­ing. All great en­ter­prises are self-sup­port­ing. The po­et, for in­stance, must sus­tain his body by his po­et­ry, as a steam plan­ing-mill feeds its boil­ers with the shav­ings it makes. You must get your liv­ing by lov­ing. But as it is said of the mer­chants that nine­ty-sev­en in a hun­dred fail, so the life of men gen­er­al­ly, tried by this stan­dard, is a fail­ure, and bank­rupt­cy may be sure­ly proph­e­sied. [12]

Mere­ly to come in­to the world the heir of a for­tune is not to be born, but to be still-born, rath­er. To be sup­port­ed by the char­i­ty of friends, or a gov­ern­ment pen­sion — pro­vid­ed you con­tin­ue to breathe — by what­ev­er fine syn­o­nyms you de­scribe these re­la­tions, is to go in­to the alms­house. On Sun­days the poor debt­or goes to church to take an ac­count of stock, and finds, of course, that his out­goes have been great­er than his in­come. In the Cath­o­lic Church, es­pe­cial­ly, they go in­to chan­cery, make a clean con­fes­sion, give up all, and think to start again. Thus men will lie on their backs, talk­ing about the fall of man, and nev­er make an ef­fort to get up. [13]

As for the com­par­a­tive de­mand which men make on life, it is an im­por­tant dif­fer­ence be­tween two, that the one is sat­is­fied with a lev­el suc­cess, that his marks can all be hit by point-blank shots, but the oth­er, how­ev­er low and un­suc­cess­ful his life may be, con­stant­ly el­e­vates his aim, though at a very slight angle to the ho­ri­zon. I should much rath­er be the last man — though, as the Ori­en­tals say, “Great­ness doth not ap­proach him who is for­ev­er look­ing down; and all those who are look­ing high are grow­ing poor.” [14]

It is re­mark­a­ble that there is lit­tle or noth­ing to be re­mem­bered writ­ten on the sub­ject of get­ting a liv­ing; how to make get­ting a liv­ing not mere­ly hol­i­est and hon­or­a­ble, but al­to­geth­er in­vit­ing and glo­ri­ous; for if get­ting a liv­ing is not so, then liv­ing is not. One would think, from look­ing at lit­er­a­ture, that this ques­tion had nev­er dis­turbed a sol­i­tary in­di­vid­u­al’s mus­ings. Is it that men are too much dis­gust­ed with their ex­pe­ri­ence to speak of it? 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, even re­form­ers, so called — wheth­er they in­her­it, or earn, or steal it. I think that So­ci­e­ty has done noth­ing for us in this re­spect, or at least has un­done what she has done. Cold and hun­ger seem more friend­ly to my na­ture than those meth­ods which men have adopt­ed and ad­vise to ward them off. [15]

The ti­tle wise is, for the most part, false­ly ap­plied. How can one be a wise man, if he does not know any bet­ter how to live than oth­er men? — if he is on­ly more cun­ning and in­tel­lec­tu­al­ly sub­tle? Does Wis­dom work in a tread-mill? or does she teach how to suc­ceed by her ex­am­ple? Is there any such thing as wis­dom not ap­plied to life? Is she mere­ly the mil­ler who grinds the fin­est logic? It is per­ti­nent to ask if Pla­to got his liv­ing in a bet­ter way or more suc­cess­ful­ly than his con­tem­po­rar­ies — or did he suc­cumb to the dif­fi­cul­ties of life like oth­er men? Did he seem to pre­vail over some of them mere­ly by in­dif­fer­ence, or by as­sum­ing grand airs? or find it eas­i­er to live, be­cause his aunt re­mem­bered him in her will? The ways in which most men get their liv­ing, that is, live, are mere make­shifts, and a shirk­ing of the real busi­ness of life — chief­ly be­cause they do not know, but part­ly be­cause they do not mean, any bet­ter. [16]

The rush to Cal­i­for­nia, for in­stance, and the at­ti­tude, not mere­ly of mer­chants, but of phi­los­o­phers and proph­ets, so called, 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. The phi­los­o­phy and po­et­ry and re­li­gion of such a man­kind are not worth the dust of a puff­ball. The hog that gets his liv­ing by root­ing, stir­ring up the soil so, would be ashamed of such com­pa­ny. If I could com­mand the wealth of all the worlds by lift­ing my fin­ger, I would not pay such a price for it. Even Ma­homet knew that God did not make this world in jest. It makes God to be a mon­eyed gen­tle­man who scat­ters a hand­ful of pen­nies in or­der to see man­kind scram­ble for them. The world’s raf­fle! A sub­sis­tence in the do­mains of Na­ture a thing to be raf­fled for! What a com­ment, what a sat­ire, on our in­sti­tu­tions! The con­clu­sion will be, that man­kind will hang it­self up­on a tree. And have all the pre­cepts in all the Bi­bles taught men on­ly this? and is the last and most ad­mi­ra­ble in­ven­tion of the hu­man race on­ly an im­proved muck-rake? Is this the ground on which Ori­en­tals and Oc­ci­den­tals meet? Did God di­rect us so to get our liv­ing, dig­ging where we nev­er plant­ed — and He would, per­chance, re­ward us with lumps of gold? [17]

God gave the right­eous man a cer­tif­i­cate en­ti­tling him to food and rai­ment, but the un­right­eous man found a fac­sim­i­le of the same in God’s cof­fers, and ap­pro­pri­at­ed it, and ob­tained food and rai­ment like the form­er. It is one of the most ex­ten­sive sys­tems of coun­ter­feit­ing that the world has seen. I did not know that man­kind was suf­fer­ing for want of gold. I have seen a lit­tle of it. I know that it is very mal­le­a­ble, but not so mal­le­a­ble as wit. A grain of gold will gild a great sur­face, but not so much as a grain of wis­dom. [18]

The gold-dig­ger in the ra­vines of the moun­tains is as much a gam­bler as his fel­low in the sa­loons of San Fran­cis­co. What dif­fer­ence does it make wheth­er you shake dirt or shake dice? If you win, so­ci­e­ty is the los­er. 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. The way of trans­gres­sors may be hard in many re­spects. The hum­blest ob­serv­er who goes to the mines sees and says that gold-dig­ging is of the char­ac­ter of a lot­tery; the gold thus ob­tained is not the same thing with the wag­es of hon­est toil. But, prac­ti­cal­ly, he for­gets what he has seen, for he has seen on­ly the fact, not the prin­ci­ple, and goes in­to trade there, that is, buys a tick­et in what com­mon­ly proves an­oth­er lot­tery, where the fact is not so ob­vi­ous. [19]

Af­ter read­ing Howitt’s ac­count of the Aus­tra­lian gold-dig­gings one eve­ning, I had in my mind’s eye, all night, the nu­mer­ous val­leys, with their streams, all cut up with foul pits, from ten to one hun­dred feet deep, and half a doz­en feet across, as close as they can be dug, and part­ly filled with water — the lo­cal­i­ty to which men fu­ri­ous­ly rush to probe for their for­tunes — un­cer­tain where they shall break ground — not know­ing but the gold is un­der their camp it­self — some­times dig­ging one hun­dred and six­ty feet be­fore they strike the vein, or then mis­sing it by a foot — turned in­to de­mons, and re­gard­less of each oth­ers’ rights, in their thirst for riches — whole val­leys, for thir­ty miles, sud­den­ly hon­ey­combed by the pits of the min­ers, so that even hun­dreds are drowned in them — stand­ing in water, and cov­ered with mud and clay, they work night and day, dy­ing of ex­po­sure and dis­ease. Hav­ing read this, and part­ly for­got­ten it, I was think­ing, ac­ci­den­tal­ly, of my own un­sat­is­fac­to­ry life, doing as oth­ers do; and with that vi­sion of the dig­gings still be­fore me, I asked my­self why I might not be wash­ing some gold dai­ly, though it were on­ly the fin­est par­ti­cles — why I might not sink a shaft down to the gold with­in me, and work that mine. There is a Bal­la­rat, a Ben­di­go for you — what though it were a sulky-gul­ly? At any rate, I might pur­sue some path, how­ev­er sol­i­tary and nar­row and crook­ed, in which I could walk with love and rev­er­ence. Wher­ev­er a man sep­a­rates from the mul­ti­tude, and goes his own way in this mood, there in­deed is a fork in the road, though or­di­nary trav­el­lers may see on­ly a gap in the pal­ing. His sol­i­tary path across lots will turn out the high­er way of the two. [20]

Men rush to Cal­i­for­nia and Aus­tra­lia as if the true gold were to be found in that di­rec­tion; but that is to go to the very op­po­site ex­treme to where it lies. They go pros­pect­ing far­ther and far­ther away from the true lead, and are most un­for­tu­nate when they think them­selves most suc­cess­ful. Is not our na­tive soil au­rif­er­ous? Does not a stream from the gold­en moun­tains flow through our na­tive val­ley? and has not this for more than ge­o­log­ic ages been bring­ing down the shin­ing par­ti­cles and form­ing the nug­gets for us? Yet, strange to tell, if a dig­ger steal away, pros­pect­ing for this true gold, in­to the un­ex­plored sol­i­tudes around us, there is no dan­ger that any will dog his steps, and en­deav­or to sup­plant him. He may claim and un­der­mine the whole val­ley even, both the cul­ti­vat­ed and the un­cul­ti­vat­ed por­tions, his whole life long in peace, for no one will ever dis­pute his claim. They will not mind his cra­dles or his toms. He is not con­fined to a claim twelve feet square, as at Bal­la­rat, but may mine any­where, and wash the whole wide world in his tom. [21]

Howitt says of the man who found the great nug­get which weighed twen­ty-eight pounds, at the Ben­di­go dig­gings in Aus­tra­lia: “He soon be­gan to drink; got a horse, and rode all about, gen­er­al­ly at full gal­lop, and, when he met peo­ple, called out to in­quire if they knew who he was, and then kind­ly in­formed them that he was ‘the bloody wretch that had found the nug­get.’ At last he rode full speed against a tree, and near­ly knocked his brains out.” I think, how­ev­er, there was no dan­ger of that, for he had al­ready knocked his brains out against the nug­get. Howitt adds, “He is a hope­less­ly ru­ined man.” But he is a type of the class. They are all fast men. Hear some of the names of the plac­es where they dig: “Jack­ass Flat” — “Sheep’s-Head Gul­ly” — “Mur­der­er’s Bar,” etc. Is there no sat­ire in these names? Let them car­ry their ill-got­ten wealth where they will, I am think­ing it will still be “Jack­ass Flat,” if not “Mur­der­er’s Bar,” where they live. [22]

The last re­source of our en­er­gy has been the rob­bing of grave­yards on the Isth­mus of Dar­i­en, an en­ter­prise which ap­pears to be but in its in­fan­cy; for, ac­cord­ing to late ac­counts, an act has passed its sec­ond read­ing in the leg­is­la­ture of New Gra­na­da, reg­u­lat­ing this kind of min­ing; and a cor­re­spon­dent of the “Trib­une” writes: “In the dry sea­son, when the weath­er will per­mit of the coun­try be­ing prop­er­ly pros­pect­ed, no doubt oth­er rich guacas [that is, grave­yards] will be found.” To em­i­grants he says: “do not come be­fore De­cem­ber; take the Isth­mus route in pref­er­ence to the Bo­ca del Toro one; bring no use­less bag­gage, and do not cum­ber your­self with a tent; but a good pair of blan­kets will be nec­es­sary; a pick, shovel, and axe of good ma­te­ri­al will be al­most all that is re­quired”: ad­vice which might have been tak­en from the “Burker’s Guide.” And he con­cludes with this line in Ital­ics and small cap­i­tals: “If you are do­ing well at home, stay there,” which may fair­ly be in­ter­pret­ed to mean, “If you are get­ting a good liv­ing by rob­bing grave­yards at home, stay there.” [23]

But why go to Cal­i­for­nia for a text? She is the child of New Eng­land, bred at her own school and church. [24]

It is re­mark­a­ble that among all the preach­ers there are so few mor­al teach­ers. The proph­ets are em­ployed in ex­cus­ing the ways of men. Most rev­er­end sen­iors, the il­lu­mi­na­ti of the age, tell me, with a gra­cious, rem­i­nis­cent smile, be­twixt an as­pi­ra­tion and a shud­der, not to be too ten­der about these things — to lump all that, that is, make a lump of gold of it. The high­est ad­vice I have heard on these sub­jects was grov­el­ling. The bur­den of it was — It is not worth your while to un­der­take to re­form the world in this par­tic­u­lar. Do not ask how your bread is but­tered; it will make you sick, if you do — and the like. A man had bet­ter starve at once than lose his in­no­cence in the proc­ess of get­ting his bread. If with­in the so­phis­ti­cat­ed man there is not an un­so­phis­ti­cat­ed one, then he is but one of the dev­il’s an­gels. As we grow old, we live more coarse­ly, we re­lax a lit­tle in our dis­ci­plines, and, to some ex­tent, cease to obey our fin­est in­stincts. But we should be fas­tid­i­ous to the ex­treme of sanity, dis­re­gard­ing the gibes of those who are more un­for­tu­nate than our­selves. [25]

In our sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy, even, there is com­mon­ly no true and ab­so­lute ac­count of things. The spir­it of sect and big­ot­ry has plant­ed its hoof amid the stars. You have on­ly to dis­cuss the prob­lem, wheth­er the stars are in­hab­it­ed or not, in or­der to dis­cov­er it. Why must we daub the heav­ens as well as the earth? It was an un­for­tu­nate dis­cov­ery that Dr. Kane was a Ma­son, and that Sir John Frank­lin was an­oth­er. But it was a more cru­el sug­ges­tion that pos­si­bly that was the rea­son why the form­er went in search of the lat­ter. There is not a pop­u­lar mag­a­zine in this coun­try that would dare to print a child’s thought on im­por­tant sub­jects with­out com­ment. It must be sub­mit­ted to the D.D.’s. I would it were the chick­a­dee-dees. [26]

You come from at­tend­ing the fu­ner­al of man­kind to at­tend to a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non. A lit­tle thought is sex­ton to all the world. [27]

I hard­ly know an in­tel­lec­tu­al man, even, who is so broad and tru­ly lib­er­al that you can think aloud in his so­ci­e­ty. Most with whom you en­deav­or to talk soon come to a stand against some in­sti­tu­tion in which they ap­pear to hold stock — that is, some par­tic­u­lar, not uni­ver­sal, way of view­ing things. They will con­tin­u­al­ly thrust their own low roof, with its nar­row sky­light, be­tween you and the sky, when it is the un­ob­struct­ed heav­ens you would view. Get out of the way with your cob­webs; wash your win­dows, I say! In some ly­ce­ums they tell me that they have vot­ed to ex­clude the sub­ject of re­li­gion. But how do I know what their re­li­gion is, and when I am near to or far from it? I have walked in­to such an are­na and done my best to make a clean breast of what re­li­gion I have ex­pe­ri­enced, and the au­di­ence nev­er sus­pect­ed what I was about. The lec­ture was as harm­less as moon­shine to them. Where­as, if I had read to them the bi­og­ra­phy of the great­est scamps in his­to­ry, they might have thought that I had writ­ten the lives of the dea­cons of their church. Or­di­nar­i­ly, the in­quiry is, Where did you come from? or, Where are you go­ing? That was a more per­ti­nent ques­tion which I over­heard one of my au­di­tors put to an­oth­er one — “What does he lec­ture for?” It made me quake in my shoes. [28]

To speak im­par­tial­ly, the best men that I know are not se­rene, a world in them­selves. For the most part, they dwell in forms, and flat­ter and study ef­fect on­ly more fine­ly than the rest. We se­lect gran­ite for the un­der­pin­ning of our hous­es and barns; we build fenc­es of stone; but we do not our­selves rest on an un­der­pin­ning of gra­nit­ic truth, the low­est prim­i­tive rock. Our sills are rot­ten. What stuff is the man made of who is not co­ex­ist­ent in our thought with the pur­est and sub­til­est truth? I of­ten ac­cuse my fin­est ac­quaint­anc­es of an im­mense friv­o­li­ty; for, while there are man­ners and com­pli­ments we do not meet, we do not teach one an­oth­er the les­sons of hon­es­ty and sin­cer­i­ty that the brutes do, or of stead­i­ness and so­lid­i­ty that the rocks do. The fault is com­mon­ly mu­tu­al, how­ev­er; for we do not ha­bit­u­al­ly de­mand any more of each oth­er. [29]

That ex­cite­ment about Kos­suth, con­sid­er how char­ac­ter­is­tic, but su­per­fi­cial, it was! — on­ly an­oth­er kind of pol­i­tics or danc­ing. Men were mak­ing speech­es to him all over the coun­try, but each ex­pressed on­ly the thought, or the want of thought, of the mul­ti­tude. No man stood on truth. They were mere­ly band­ed to­geth­er, as usu­al one lean­ing on an­oth­er, and all to­geth­er on noth­ing; as the Hin­doos made the world rest on an el­e­phant, the el­e­phant on a tor­toise, and the tor­toise on a ser­pent, and had noth­ing to put un­der the ser­pent. For all fruit of that stir we have the Kos­suth hat. [30]

Just so hol­low and in­ef­fec­tu­al, for the most part, is our or­di­nary con­ver­sa­tion. Sur­face meets sur­face. When our life ceas­es to be in­ward and pri­vate, con­ver­sa­tion de­gen­er­ates in­to mere gos­sip. We rare­ly meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a news­pa­per, or been told by his neigh­bor; and, for the most part, the on­ly dif­fer­ence be­tween us and our fel­low is that he has seen the news­pa­per, or been out to tea, and we have not. In pro­por­tion as our in­ward life fails, we go more con­stant­ly and des­per­ate­ly to the post-of­fice. You may de­pend on it, that the poor fel­low who walks away with the great­est num­ber of let­ters, proud of his ex­ten­sive cor­re­spon­dence, has not heard from him­self this long while. [31]

I do not know but it is too much to read one news­pa­per a week. I have tried it re­cent­ly, and for so long it seems to me that I have not dwelt in my na­tive re­gion. The sun, the clouds, the snow, the trees say not so much to me. You can­not serve two mas­ters. It re­quires more than a day’s de­vo­tion to know and to pos­sess the wealth of a day. [32]

We may well be ashamed to tell what things we have read or heard in our day. I did not know why my news should be so triv­i­al — con­sid­er­ing what one’s dreams and ex­pec­ta­tions are, why the de­vel­op­ments should be so pal­try. The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our gen­ius. It is the stal­est rep­e­ti­tion. You are of­ten tempt­ed to ask why such stress is laid on a par­tic­u­lar ex­pe­ri­ence which you have had — that, af­ter twen­ty-five years, you should meet Hob­bins, Reg­is­trar of Deeds, again on the side­walk. Have you not budged an inch, then? Such is the dai­ly news. Its facts ap­pear to float in the at­mos­phere, in­sig­nif­i­cant as the spor­ules of fun­gi, and im­pinge on some ne­glect­ed thal­lus, or sur­face of our minds, which af­fords a ba­sis for them, and hence a par­a­sit­ic growth. We should wash our­selves clean of such news. Of what con­s­equence, though our plan­et ex­plode, if there is no char­ac­ter in­volved in the ex­plo­sion? In health we have not the least cu­ri­os­i­ty about such events. We do not live for idle amuse­ment. I would not run round a cor­ner to see the world blow up. [33]

All sum­mer, and far in­to the au­tumn, per­chance, you un­con­scious­ly went by the news­pa­pers and the news, and now you find it was be­cause the morn­ing and the eve­ning were full of news to you. Your walks were full of in­ci­dents. You at­tend­ed, not to the af­fairs of Eu­rope, but to your own af­fairs in Mas­sa­chu­setts fields. If you chance to live and move and have your be­ing in that thin stra­tum in which the events that make the news tran­spire — thin­ner than the pa­per on which it is print­ed — then these things will fill the world for you; but if you soar above or dive be­low that plane, you can­not re­mem­ber nor be re­mind­ed of them. Real­ly to see the sun rise or go down eve­ry day, so to re­late our­selves to a uni­ver­sal fact, would pre­serve us sane for­ev­er. Na­tions! What are na­tions? Tar­tars, and Huns, and Chi­na­men! Like in­sects, they swarm. The his­to­ri­an strives in vain to make them mem­o­ra­ble. It is for want of a man that there are so many men. It is in­di­vid­u­als that pop­u­late the world. Any man think­ing may say with the Spir­it of Lodin — 

“I look down from my height on na­tions,
 And they be­come ashes be­fore me; —
 Calm is my dwel­ling in the clouds;
 Pleas­ant are the great fields of my rest.”
[34]

Pray, let us live with­out be­ing drawn by dogs, Es­qui­maux-fash­ion, tear­ing over hill and dale, and bit­ing each oth­er’s ears. [35]

Not with­out a slight shud­der at the dan­ger, I of­ten per­ceive how near I had come to ad­mit­ting in­to my mind the de­tails of some triv­i­al af­fair — the news of the street; and I am aston­ished to ob­serve how wil­ling men are to lum­ber their minds with such rub­bish — to per­mit idle ru­mors and in­ci­dents of the most in­sig­nif­i­cant kind to in­trude on ground which should be sa­cred to thought. Shall the mind be a pub­lic are­na, where the af­fairs of the street and the gos­sip of the tea-ta­ble chief­ly are dis­cussed? Or shall it be a quar­ter of heav­en it­self — an hy­pæ­thral tem­ple, con­se­crat­ed to the ser­vice of the gods? I find it so dif­fi­cult to dis­pose of the few facts which to me are sig­nif­i­cant, that I hes­i­tate to bur­den my at­ten­tion with those which are in­sig­nif­i­cant, which on­ly a di­vine mind could il­lus­trate. Such is, for the most part, the news in news­pa­pers and con­ver­sa­tion. It is im­por­tant to pre­serve the mind’s chas­ti­ty in this re­spect. Think of ad­mit­ting the de­tails of a sin­gle case of the crim­i­nal court in­to our thoughts, to stalk pro­fane­ly through their very sanc­tum sanc­to­rum for an hour, ay, for many hours! to make a very bar-room of the mind’s in­most apart­ment, as if for so long the dust of the street had oc­cu­pied us — the very street it­self, with all its trav­el, its bus­tle, and filth, had passed through our thoughts’ shrine! Would it not be an in­tel­lec­tu­al and mor­al su­i­cide? When I have been com­pelled to sit spec­ta­tor and au­di­tor in a court-room for some hours, and have seen my neigh­bors, who were not com­pelled, steal­ing in from time to time, and tip­toe­ing about with washed hands and faces, it has ap­peared to my mind’s eye, that, when they took off their hats, their ears sud­den­ly ex­pand­ed in­to vast hop­pers for sound, be­tween which even their nar­row heads were crowd­ed. Like the vanes of wind­mills, they caught the broad but shal­low stream of sound, which, af­ter a few tit­il­lat­ing gy­ra­tions in their cog­gy brains, passed out the oth­er side. I won­dered if, when they got home, they were as care­ful to wash their ears as be­fore their hands and faces. It has seemed to me, at such a time, that the au­di­tors and the wit­ness­es, the jury and the coun­sel, the judge and the crim­i­nal at the bar — if I may pre­sume him guilty be­fore he is con­vict­ed — were all equal­ly crim­i­nal, and a thun­der­bolt might be ex­pect­ed to de­scend and con­sume them all to­geth­er. [36]

By all kinds of traps and sign­boards, threat­en­ing the ex­treme pen­al­ty of the di­vine law, ex­clude such tres­pass­ers from the on­ly ground which can be sa­cred to you. It is so hard to for­get what it is worse than use­less to re­mem­ber! If I am to be a thor­ough­fare, I pre­fer that it be of the moun­tain brooks, the Par­nas­si­an streams, and not the town sew­ers. There is in­spi­ra­tion, that gos­sip which comes to the ear of the at­ten­tive mind from the courts of heav­en. There is the pro­fane and stale rev­e­la­tion of the bar-room and the po­lice court. The same ear is fit­ted to re­ceive both com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Only the char­ac­ter of the hear­er de­ter­mines to which it shall be open, and to which closed. I be­lieve that the mind can be per­ma­nent­ly pro­faned by the habit of at­tend­ing to triv­i­al things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triv­i­al­i­ty. Our very in­tel­lect shall be mac­ad­am­ized, as it were — its foun­da­tion bro­ken in­to frag­ments for the wheels of trav­el to roll over; and if you would know what will make the most du­ra­ble pave­ment, sur­pas­sing rolled stones, spruce blocks, and as­phal­tum, you have on­ly to look in­to some of our minds which have been sub­ject­ed to this treat­ment so long. [37]

If we have thus des­e­crat­ed our­selves — as who has not? — the rem­e­dy will be by war­i­ness and de­vo­tion to re­con­se­crate our­selves, and make once more a fane of the mind. We should treat our minds, that is, our­selves, as in­no­cent and in­gen­u­ous chil­dren, whose guard­i­ans we are, and be care­ful what ob­jects and what sub­jects we thrust on their at­ten­tion. Read not the Times. Read the Eter­ni­ties. Con­ven­tion­al­i­ties are at length as bad as im­pu­ri­ties. Even the facts of sci­ence may dust the mind by their dry­ness, un­less they are in a sense ef­faced each morn­ing, or rath­er ren­dered fer­tile by the dews of fresh and liv­ing truth. Knowl­edge does not come to us by de­tails, but in flash­es of light from heav­en. Yes, eve­ry thought that pass­es through the mind helps to wear and tear it, and to deep­en the ruts, which, as in the streets of Pom­pe­ii, evince how much it has been used. How many things there are con­cern­ing which we might well de­lib­e­rate wheth­er we had bet­ter know them — had bet­ter let their ped­dling-carts be driv­en, even at the slow­est trot or walk, over that bride of glo­ri­ous span by which we trust to pass at last from the far­thest brink of time to the near­est shore of eter­ni­ty! Have we no cul­ture, no re­fine­ment — but skill on­ly to live coarse­ly and serve the Dev­il? — to ac­quire a lit­tle world­ly wealth, or fame, or lib­er­ty, and make a false show with it, as if we were all husk and shell, with no ten­der and liv­ing ker­nel to us? Shall our in­sti­tu­tions be like those chest­nut burs which con­tain abor­tive nuts, per­fect on­ly to prick the fin­gers? [38]

Amer­i­ca is said to be the are­na on which the bat­tle of free­dom is to be fought; but sure­ly it can­not be free­dom in a mere­ly po­lit­i­cal sense that is meant. Even if we grant that the Amer­i­can has freed him­self from a po­lit­i­cal ty­rant, he is still the slave of an ec­o­nom­i­cal and mor­al ty­rant. Now that the re­pub­lic — the res-pub­li­ca — has been set­tled, it is time to look af­ter the res-pri­va­ta — the pri­vate state — to see, as the Ro­man sen­ate charged its con­suls, “ne quid res-pri­va­ta det­ri­men­ti ca­per­et,” that the pri­vate state re­ceive no det­ri­ment. [39]

Do we call this the land of the free? What is it to be free from King George and con­tin­ue the slaves of King Prej­u­dice? What is it to be born free and not to live free? What is the val­ue of any po­lit­i­cal free­dom, but as a means to mor­al free­dom? Is it a free­dom to be slaves, or a free­dom to be free, of which we boast? We are a na­tion of pol­i­ti­cians, con­cerned about the out­most de­fenc­es on­ly of free­dom. It is our chil­dren’s chil­dren who may per­chance be real­ly free. We tax our­selves un­just­ly. There is a part of us which is not rep­re­sent­ed. It is tax­a­tion with­out rep­re­sen­ta­tion. We quar­ter troops, we quar­ter fools and cat­tle of all sorts up­on our­selves. We quar­ter our gross bod­ies on our poor souls, till the form­er eat up all the lat­ter’s sub­stance. [40]

With re­spect to a true cul­ture and man­hood, we are es­sen­tial­ly pro­vin­cial still, not met­ro­pol­i­tan — mere Jon­a­thans. We are pro­vin­cial, be­cause we do not find at home our stan­dards; be­cause we do not wor­ship truth, but the re­flec­tion of truth; be­cause we are warped and nar­rowed by an ex­clu­sive de­vo­tion to trade and com­merce and man­u­fac­tures and ag­ri­cul­ture and the like, which are but means, and not the end. [41]

So is the Eng­lish Par­lia­ment pro­vin­cial. Mere coun­try bump­kins, they be­tray them­selves, when any more im­por­tant ques­tion aris­es for them to set­tle, the Irish ques­tion, for in­stance — the Eng­lish ques­tion why did I not say? Their na­tures are sub­dued to what they work in. Their “good breed­ing” re­spects on­ly sec­ond­ary ob­jects. The fin­est man­ners in the world are awk­ward­ness and fa­tu­i­ty when con­trast­ed with a fin­er in­tel­li­gence. They ap­pear but as the fash­ions of past days — mere court­li­ness, knee-buck­les and small-clothes, out of date. It is the vice, but not the ex­cel­lence of man­ners, that they are con­tin­u­al­ly be­ing de­sert­ed by the char­ac­ter; they are cast-off-clothes or shells, claim­ing the re­spect which be­longed to the liv­ing crea­ture. You are pres­ent­ed with the shells in­stead of the meat, and it is no ex­cuse gen­er­al­ly, that, in the case of some fish­es, the shells are of more worth than the meat. The man who thrusts his man­ners up­on me does as if he were to in­sist on in­tro­duc­ing me to his cab­i­net of cu­ri­os­i­ties, when I wished to see him­self. It was not in this sense that the po­et Deck­er called Christ “the first true gen­tle­man that ever breathed.” I repeat that in this sense the most splen­did court in Chris­ten­dom is pro­vin­cial, hav­ing au­thor­i­ty to con­sult about Trans­al­pine in­ter­ests on­ly, and not the af­fairs of Rome. A præ­tor or pro­con­sul would suf­fice to set­tle the ques­tions which ab­sorb the at­ten­tion of the Eng­lish Par­lia­ment and the Amer­i­can Con­gress. [42]

Gov­ern­ment and leg­is­la­tion! these I thought were re­spect­a­ble pro­fes­sions. We have heard of heav­en-born Numas, Lycur­gus­es, and Solons, in the his­to­ry of the world, whose names at least may stand for ideal leg­is­la­tors; but think of leg­is­lat­ing to reg­u­late the breed­ing of slaves, or the ex­por­ta­tion of to­bac­co! What have di­vine leg­is­la­tors to do with the ex­por­ta­tion or the im­por­ta­tion of to­bac­co? what hu­mane ones with the breed­ing of slaves? Sup­pose you were to sub­mit the ques­tion to any son of God — and has He no chil­dren in the Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry? is it a fam­i­ly which is ex­tinct? — in what con­di­tion would you get it again? What shall a State like Vir­gin­ia say for it­self at the last day, in which these have been the prin­ci­pal, the sta­ple pro­duc­tions? What ground is there for pa­tri­ot­ism in such a State? I de­rive my facts from sta­tis­ti­cal ta­bles which the States them­selves have pub­lished. [43]

A com­merce that whit­ens eve­ry sea in quest of nuts and rai­sins, and makes slaves of its sail­ors for this pur­pose! I saw, the oth­er day, a ves­sel which had been wrecked, and many lives lost, and her car­go of rags, ju­ni­per ber­ries, and bit­ter al­monds were strewn along the shore. It seemed hard­ly worth the while to tempt the dan­gers of the sea be­tween Leg­horn and New York for the sake of a car­go of ju­ni­per ber­ries and bit­ter al­monds. Amer­i­ca send­ing to the Old World for her bit­ters! Is not the sea-brine, is not ship­wreck, bit­ter enough to make the cup of life go down here? Yet such, to a great ex­tent, is our boast­ed com­merce; and there are those who style them­selves states­men and phi­los­o­phers who are so blind as to think that prog­ress and civ­i­li­za­tion de­pend on pre­cise­ly this kind of in­ter­change and ac­tiv­i­ty — the ac­tiv­i­ty of flies about a mo­las­ses-hogs­head. Very well, ob­serves one, if men were oys­ters. And very well, an­swer I, if men were mos­qui­toes. [44]

Lieu­ten­ant Hern­don, whom our gov­ern­ment sent to ex­plore the Am­a­zon, and, it is said, to ex­tend the area of slav­ery, ob­served that there was want­ing there “an in­dus­tri­ous and ac­tive pop­u­la­tion, who know what the com­forts of life are, and who have ar­ti­fi­cial wants to draw out the great re­sourc­es of the coun­try.” But what are the “ar­ti­fi­cial wants” to be en­cour­aged? Not the love of lux­u­ries, like the to­bac­co and slaves of, I be­lieve, his na­tive Vir­gin­ia, nor the ice and gran­ite and oth­er ma­te­ri­al wealth of our na­tive New Eng­land; nor are “the great re­sourc­es of a coun­try” that fer­til­i­ty or bar­ren­ness of soil which pro­duc­es these. The chief want, in eve­ry State that I have been in­to, was a high and ear­nest pur­pose in its in­hab­it­ants. This alone draws out “the great re­sourc­es” of Na­ture, and at last tax­es her be­yond her re­sourc­es; for man nat­u­ral­ly dies out of her. 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. [45]

In short, as a snow-drift is formed where there is a lull in the wind, so, one would say, where there is a lull of truth, an in­sti­tu­tion springs up. But the truth blows right on over it, nev­er­the­less, and at length blows it down. [46]

What is called pol­i­tics is com­par­a­tive­ly some­thing so su­per­fi­cial and in­hu­man, that prac­ti­cal­ly I have nev­er fair­ly rec­og­nized that it con­cerns me at all. The news­pa­pers, I per­ceive, de­vote some of their columns specially to pol­i­tics or gov­ern­ment with­out charge; and this, one would say, is all that saves it; but as I love lit­er­a­ture and to some ex­tent the truth also, I nev­er read those col­umns at any rate. I do not wish to blunt my sense of right so much. I have not got to an­swer for hav­ing read a sin­gle Pres­i­dent’s Mes­sage. A strange age of the world this, when em­pires, king­doms, and re­pub­lics come a-beg­ging to a pri­vate man’s door, and ut­ter their com­plaints at his el­bow! I can­not take up a news­pa­per but I find that some wretch­ed gov­ern­ment or oth­er, hard pushed and on its last legs, is in­ter­ced­ing with me, the read­er, to vote for it — more im­por­tu­nate than an Ital­ian beg­gar; and if I have a mind to look at its cer­tif­i­cate, made, per­chance, by some be­nev­o­lent mer­chant’s clerk, or the skip­per that brought it over, for it can­not speak a word of Eng­lish it­self, I shall prob­a­bly read of the erup­tion of some Ve­su­vi­us, or the over­flow­ing of some Po, true or forged, which brought it in­to this con­di­tion. I do not hes­i­tate, in such a case, to sug­gest work, or the alms­house; or why not keep its cas­tle in si­lence, as I do com­mon­ly? The poor Pres­i­dent, what with pre­serv­ing his pop­u­lar­i­ty and do­ing his du­ty, is com­plete­ly be­wil­dered. The news­pa­pers are the rul­ing pow­er. Any oth­er gov­ern­ment is re­duced to a few ma­rines at Fort In­de­pen­dence. If a man ne­glects to read the Dai­ly Times, gov­ern­ment will go down on its knees to him, for this is the on­ly trea­son in these days. [47]

Those things which now most en­gage the at­ten­tion of men, as pol­i­tics and the dai­ly rou­tine, are, it is true, vi­tal func­tions of hu­man so­ci­e­ty, but should be un­con­scious­ly per­formed, like the cor­re­spon­ding func­tions of the phys­i­cal body. They are infra-hu­man, a kind of veg­e­ta­tion. I some­times awake to a half-con­scious­ness of them go­ing on about me, as a man may be­come con­scious of some of the proc­ess­es of di­ges­tion in a mor­bid state, and so have the dys­pep­sia, as it is called. It is as if a think­er sub­mit­ted him­self to be rasped by the great giz­zard of cre­a­tion. Pol­i­tics is, as it were, the giz­zard of so­ci­e­ty, full of grit and grav­el, and the two po­lit­i­cal par­ties are its two op­po­site halves — some­times split in­to quar­ters, it may be, which grind on each oth­er. Not on­ly in­di­vid­u­als, but states, have thus a con­firmed dys­pep­sia, which ex­press­es it­self, you can imag­ine by what sort of el­o­quence. Thus our life is not al­to­geth­er a for­get­ting, but also, alas! to a great ex­tent, a re­mem­ber­ing, of that which we should nev­er have been con­scious of, cer­tain­ly not in our wak­ing hours. Why should we not meet, not al­ways as dys­pep­tics, to tell our bad dreams, but some­times as eu­pep­tics, to con­grat­u­late each oth­er on the ever-glo­ri­ous morn­ing? I do not make an ex­or­bi­tant de­mand, sure­ly. [48]

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