Idealism in "Life without Principle"

Katie Reynolds '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In " Life without Principle" Thoreau argues that work should be something we love in order to lead a life worth living, not simply a make a living.

The aim of labor 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 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 the love of it.

Thoreau is able to get his readers to agree with him because he appeals to our idealistic notions of how nice it would be to love every minute of life, including work. However, Thoreau does not take into account people living in poverty, worrying about things such as paying rent and finding money for children's clothes or school supplies. It is almost naive to conclude that in order to live a fulfilled life we must pursue our own path in finding what it is we truly love, and then work doing that. How can he forget there are people who do not have such freedom and must take a job because it comes with a paycheck?

1. What literary techniques does Thoreau employ to get his reader to be persuaded by his argument?

2. If Thoreau does understand the immediate financial needs of the impoverished, why does he ignore them in his essay? Is his argument strengthened by ignoring this issue or weakened by its absence?

3. In what ways is idealism a positive trait of Thoreau's essay? In what ways does it work against him?


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Last modified 8 October 2003