Celebrating critical thinking: why I love Thoreau’s essay Life Without Principle

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Celebrating critical thinking: why I love Thoreau’s essay Life Without Principle

Celebrating critical thinking: why I love Thoreau’s essay Life Without Principle
November 18
20:36 2015

Henry David Thoreau’s Life Without Principle explores the importance of honesty and integrity. To me, the essay also vividly and unmistakably celebrates the importance of critical thinking and warns of the danger of the idleness of the mind if not the body.

For Thoreau, some individuals suppress their thoughts and ideas to the point their words and pronouncements have little bearing on their inner dialogue or convictions: “He described things not in or near his heart, but towards the extremities and superficies.” (Thoreau, 1862) This idea that a person can spend time talking about things without truly revealing their own thoughts is appreciated by some and distrusted by others. For Thoreau, there is credibility and authenticity in relating private thoughts to public speaking and there does not have to be a separation between the internal and the external: “I would have had him deal with his privatest experience, as the poet does.” (Ibid, 1862) Thoreau does not view sharing or revealing independent ideas or thoughts as a manifestation of weakness. Rather he attributes it to sincerity and principles.

I would further argue that when people seek to create a marked and vast difference between what they say and what they think – it only serves to foster and nourish hypocrisy. Some people may temper what they say because they wish to be diplomatic. It is possible, however, to nurture thoughts into words without offending or maligning others.

Politicians, however, seldom reveal their actual agendas because they want to advance their careers and thus do not want to antagonise potential supporters. Thus, some people stunt their thinking to raise their profile or social standing. Their intelligence is watered down because they are engaged in self-deception. In reducing their ability to promote justice and critical thinking – they only seek to elevate their own profile whilst obstructing others from thinking and achieving. Thoreau also suggests that some individuals avoid engaging their minds in fruitful thinking and conversation because they prefer to proliferate rumours and to hear “what trivial news I have burdened myself with.” (Ibid, 1862) It is more appealing for some individuals to talk about others instead of giving credence to original thoughts and sentiments.

Even experts in particular subjects are not always valued for what they really think, but rather their value is in how useful they are in promoting and validating particular agendas. Thoreau points out that he was asked to give a lecture on slavery, but soon discovered that his actual thoughts on slavery were not really valued or sought: “He and his clique expected seven eights of the lecture to be theirs, and only one eighth mine; so I declined.” (Ibid, 1862) Thoreau refused to give a lecture that would downplay his own thoughts whilst advancing the views of others. His refusal to compromise his principles highlights his integrity and independence. However, in today’s times some “experts” spend years formulating their thoughts or theories on a particular subject only to sell their words for a monetary reward. They do not think suppressing their own thoughts undervalues their work, but rather want to gain popularity and status at any cost. It is sadly not unusual for people to give a talk or write a book that serves the purpose of advancing political agendas rather than being a vehicle for constructive thinking.

Thoreau’s words imply that he does not believe that individuals have to curtail their thoughts and ideas to fit into society. He concedes, however, that the noise of the world can make thinking difficult: “The world is a place of business […] there is no Sabbath.” (Thoreau, 1862) Thoreau argues that the lack of “leisure” time means people are preoccupied with “work, work, work.” Certainly “leisure” is increasingly perceived as a luxury that is difficult to grasp. It is conducive to individuals’ morale and indeed well-being if they have some time to relax the mind and to contemplate and harness interests that are not reminiscent of “work.” For Thoreau, obsession with money and gossip necessitates that thought and contemplation are relegated and are not fortified or developed: “I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.” (Thoreau, 1862) Thoreau makes a valid point that “incessant business” taints and tarnishes profound experiences and prevents people from truly living and indeed appreciating life. In the current century, however, the “bustle” of perpetual news and business coverage are more prevalent. This discourages contemplation and deprives people of the means and indeed the time to engage in critical thinking.

Critical thinking should not be relegated to the world of academia, but should form a pivotal part of our lives. Thoreau insinuates that people do not ponder on their employment and thus do things that do not require much intellectual stimulation: “Most people would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then throwing them back […] But many are no more worthily employed now.” (Thoreau, 1862) Thoreau is making a perceptive and nuanced point that many employed people are going through the motions of earning a living but are not utilising their full capabilities or exercising their principles.

Certainly, some people are drawn to jobs and careers that they feel will bring them the most profit irrespective of whether the job itself appeals to their skill set or interests. Some do this out of necessity, but what is more troubling is that some individuals knowingly and deliberately prepare themselves for a mechanical role in the future. They do not pick subjects at university that they love or have a passion for but rather embrace a strategic mindset that makes them distant from their own hearts. Passion and love for a subject or a particular job are viewed as luxuries and not realities. Many people choose to occupy jobs that do not require them to think or evolve. Thus some individuals find themselves in employment that requires them to follow a robotic pattern rather than their hearts. Principles and independent thinking are obliterated from some individuals’ lives. For Thoreau, however, the quest and determination in earning a livelihood should not compromise personal integrity nor pollute independent thought: “A man had better starve […] than lose his innocence in the process of getting his bread.” (Thoreau, 1862)

I would argue that many people are faced with dilemmas in regards to employment. Some individuals are torn between wanting to provide for themselves and wanting to nourish their own souls. Sometimes people have no choice but to take soul destroying jobs. However, Thoreau is right to point out that individuals should not lose their principles – their “innocence” to secure employment. To do so – would only agitate the heart and spark restlessness.

For Thoreau a person’s value does not derive from his or her employment, but it depends on private and public conduct: “An efficient and valuable man does what he can, whether the community pay him for it or not.” (Thoreau, 1862) Hard work does not always have to yield monetary rewards. Some of the most influential and resourceful people make little money, but make a powerful impact and thus lead a rich and content life. Thoreau is perceptive in his view that “the inefficient offer their inefficiency to the highest bidder.” Indeed, we live in an age where hedge funding, spin and PR politics are rewarded despite yielding very little benefit to individuals or society. When money becomes the focal point for everything – principles and values are sidelined. Some corporations, individuals and groups do indeed court “the inefficient” because people who are less than scrupulous in their principles are susceptible to changing with the tide and are easier to control. They are also more likely to follow dictations because their love for money and status is insatiable. Without integrity – principles cannot be embedded.


Life Without Principle denounces the unbridled influence of gossip and its pervading influence: “The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius. It is the stalest repetition.” (Thoreau, 1862) Gossip and “news” that focuses on the sensational becomes an exercise in repetition. I would ascertain that some individuals are not even aware that they are purveyors of “repetition”. For instance an individual may read an article or listen to a broadcast and then regurgitate it to other people as though he or she formulated their own ideas. Rather than critically engaging with what they observe, see or hear – some people accept “gossip” or supposed news as fact. Moreover, the increasing fixation with celebrity news is further eroding critical thinking skills and stops some individuals from living their own lives to the highest standard.

Thoreau suggests that the prevalence of gossip and meaningless news is a consequence of individuals’ lives “[ceasing] to be inward and private.” (Thoreau, 1862) Thoreau was highlighting the importance of privacy in the nineteenth century, but his words have more relevance in the twenty first century where technological advances entail people are bombarded with even more distractions. Facebook and Instagram encourage the loss of the private and celebrate the outward or external and thus undervalue the sacred. People share minutest details of their lives and thus the whole process of sharing is preventing people from engaging in profound thinking. Making everything public is downgrading the importance and value of introspection and deliberation.

Freedom is energised by independence of thought

Thoreau’s emphasis on critical thinking and principles are important because it encourages readers not to let the natural desire to work stunt their intellectual and moral growth. Freedom cannot be achieved if thinking is reduced. For Thoreau, freedom is what elevates principles, but freedom should not be restricted to plaudits and rhetoric: “What is it to be born free and not live free?” (Thoreau, 1862) Thoreau is making a critical distinction between the ideal and the actual. In countries such as the United States people are born with rights that are celebrated by the U.S. Constitution. However, these rights are not always exercised and some people are only free in name and cannot “live free”. Freedom should not be restricted to movement, but rather individuals should be encouraged to value the importance of critical thinking and freedom in all that they do. Thoreau’s essay explores the importance of living with purpose and elevating principles at work and at home. For me, Thoreau’s main contention is that freedom depends not on how much you earn or whether you have the ability to travel and buy what you want, but rather on the ability to think, ponder and reflect on the subtleties of life. If our employment makes us forgo our thinking skills, it reduces our integrity and awareness…

By Mussarrat Shaheen
© 2015

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  1. Jaz
    Jaz November 19, 18:49

    Love this article, very well written and Relatable examples used to make the reader understand Thoreau’s point about principles. Wow!

    Reply to this comment
  2. Pete
    Pete November 20, 19:07

    We live in a world with media influences designed to confuse and paint a muddied picture.
    Getting to the truth is very difficult to achieve – so we busy ourselves in our own little lives
    Those brave enough to question are scorned upon and hushed up but in truth none of us has answers – the waters are far too muddied

    Reply to this comment
  3. Meli
    Meli November 20, 23:51

    A very well written and thoughtful article…we are surrounded by superficial and meaningless ‘noise’. Everything is done in a hurry, sadly we don’t give ourselves enough time to sit and contemplate in silence. In our cars we switch on the radio, in our homes we switch on the tv, anything to avoid silence. Noise everywhere, obsession with work and business, with media and celebrity gossip, with facebook and social media. No time to sit and think, to contemplate …we are trapped by this and sometimes in mindless, soul destroying jobs in which we don’t get the chance to think independently or creatively. We can be more free by thinking independently, reflecting and engaging in profound thinking. This might lead to a richer, more valuable and more honest life. We don’t necessarily need to be making lots of money. Obsession with money and status, robotic, soul destroying jobs, money making, capitalism, lying politicians … all meaningless. We need more Truth. Makes me think of John Lennon’s song ‘Gimme Some Truth’

    Reply to this comment
  4. Colin
    Colin November 22, 13:18

    Our preoccupation with wealth and the subsequent choosing of career in order to obtain wealth are detrimental to our psychological health. Unfortunately, that’s become the norm. People are no longer valued by what they contribute to a society but what they take from it. Troubling times lay ahead. I have really enjoyed reading this article of truth at all costs.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Amy
    Amy November 22, 23:20

    Interesting article, we live in age where success is based on how much we earn. It’s really sad

    Reply to this comment
  6. Naheem
    Naheem February 09, 01:00

    The prophet Mohammad (SAW) emphasised on the necessity of ihtisab or self evaluation. ‘Everyone starts his day and is a vendor of his soul, either freeing it or bringing about its ruin’ (Muslim)
    We seldom have time to think about how our surroundings are effecting us. Taking the time out from the surrounding ‘noise’ could not be more important.
    A Great article!

    Reply to this comment

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