Making a Living as Making a Life: Thoreau on Work & Life’s Real Business

A lot has changed over the past 200 years. But perhaps even more remarkable is what’s stayed the same: we work a lot. Particularly, not ‘work’ for its own sake, but in service to some further end. We still spend much of our time securing necessities we don’t have. We work so much just to survive that in the process we forfeit ourselves to the cyclical process of securing means, leaving far too little time for the exploration of ends. In Henry Thoreau’s strikingly still-relevant 1863 essay, Life Without Principle, he bellows:

This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! … I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”

Thoreau begs the question, if bustling business is not conducive to “life itself”, what is? In his collection of essays, Does it Matter, Alan Watts suggests that perhaps the best we can do in life, as organisms set down here on Earth, a floating, vegetated, wet orb, producing creatures that are becoming increasingly aware of their — our — confounding cosmic situation, are excellent things for their own sake. He cites a host of activities: “farming and cooking, mining and engineering, making clothes and buildings, traveling and learning, art, music, dancing, and making love.” Undertakings of immediate value that are, themselves, visceral reward enough and require no future payoff.

Henry David Thoreau

In other words, ends. Activities that instill fulfillment through their active process — farming for communion with the land rather than just reaping crops, engineering for the thrill of reifying a complex idea. Such activities are always idiosyncratic, and the spirit that differentiates means from ends is often obscure. But our seeming indifference towards developing a cultural conscience of discernment is precisely the point. If we don’t scrutinize means and ends, we’ll remain subservient to the means of an end we’ll never know.

The Evolution of Work

Economist John Maynard Keynes believed, writing in 1930, that by 2030, the “economic problem” would be solved:

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

                                                ~ Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930)

But this 20th century belief that as productivity rose, ‘menial’ work hours — the type of work economist David Graeber’s vibrant essay calls “bullshit jobs” — would diminish hit a snag in the late 1930’s:

                                                                       Thanks, Max Roser

Ever since, despite polemics from the likes of Bertrand Russell against the tyranny of work and Keynes’ promise of 15-hour work weeks, or Tim Ferriss’ “4-hour workweek”, the proportion of our lives spent merely working remains, on aggregate, unchanged.

So long as workdays usurp such percentages of our waking lives, the business of work is life itself. The questions, where should I work? What should I do? become, themselves, whether deliberately or not, responses to philosophy’s perennial question: how should I live?

Thoreau continues, pointing at the inadequacy of responding to philosophy’s question with the nearsightedness of merely economic considerations:

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.”

But is it conceivable that, as Thoreau accuses, we “do not know” that our lives “are mere makeshifts”? His accusation rests on whether or not we believe that labor is inherently part of life’s “real business”, and today’s political landscape is reinvigorating this question. That work, regardless of its nature, is essential to a respectable human life is a value shared by many. That individuals ought to engage in a wage-earning activity — that freedom means freedom to work— is such an engrained idea that even Joe Biden’s institute sports the headline:


Why? Is work, all work, so holy? Is a future replete with work really the best we can envision? What of kindness, wisdom, stability, or happiness, to name a few? Such a work-centric future would horrify Thoreau, who laments the unconscious, thoughtless conflation between making a living — work — and living itself:

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.”

If Thoreau’s prior accusation still hits the mark — that our means of making a living actually shirk “the real business of life” — we may be left feeling slightly defensive, uncomfortable with our implicated accountability. But perhaps we can still dodge the blame.

As the prior graph shows, something happened in the late 1930’s regarding our relationship to working hours. Perhaps, when a glimmer of light finally appeared beyond the haze of the Great Depression, Americans took on a vigor, a frantic climb towards subsistence that never stopped. Indeed, the work ethic of the late 20th century was singular and devout. It also succeeded tremendously. Real human needs were met via diligent economic activity. Single generations bootstrapped themselves up from squalor to stability. Biden even quotes his father, presumably from the mid-20th century:

…a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about your self-respect. It’s about your place in your community.”

In the 20th century, this rang true. The fruit of that economic labor went beyond the work itself, bringing unprecedented stability, liberating Americans to think about things like dignity and self-respect. We’ve evolved under conditions that equated laboring and living, imprinting their marriage into our neurological pathways.

But mentalities of the 20th century must adapt to the vastly evolved 21st century landscape (thank goodness for neuroplasticity). Why continue to associate self-respect with the labor we perform? Is not the kindness we exude a worthier metric? What of the creativity, generosity, and vividness with which we live? Work is no longer anxiety’s panacea, nor self-respect’s yardstick (evidenced by the proliferation of mid-life crises). Maybe, as Thoreau cautions, we attached ourselves to the wrong portion of that economic climb. Perhaps we habituated ourselves to mistakenly view the workas emancipatory, rather than the stability it provides. We erroneously grew to believe that making a living well translated to living well, regardless of context.

Renovating our cultural altar from worshipping work to worshipping economic (not to mention mental) stability, the entire conversation changes. Labor hours become valuable only insofar as they ascertain stability. We may begin to utilize stability as the means that it is towards life’s greater contemplations, rather than selling progress short by treating the ascertainment of stability as an end itself. We’ll be forced to ask what to do with our lives when the labor required to sustain it doesn’t usurp the entire affair.

Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness (1935), its relevance still compounding since publication, emphasizes leisure time’s proximity to the cultivation of life’s ends:

…a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.”

Russell’s idea traces back to Aristotle, who writes, “…we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends”. Their understanding of ‘leisure’ is pivotal. Far from todays connotation of vegetative relaxation, they conceive of leisure as time which is wholly our own to marshal — activity for its own sake, in service to no further volitions. Leisure, not work, becomes the fertilizer of individual identity. Leisure untethers dignity and self-respect from labor, challenging us to find them not in what we do, but who we are (and, more acutely, enquire into the difference between them: who we are and what we do).

Thoreau‘s Sanctity of Mind 

Thoreau’s concern toward trivial labor, of spending our time fixated upon means in place of ends, is that the triviality of means may permanently warp the mind — the prism of consciousness through which we experience our lives:

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.”

He thus reveals the nectar he seeks to protect, to enrich: thought. His leisure time is spent in constant, incisive exploration of awareness itself. Thoreau may be America’s most revered naturalist, but his reverence for Nature is at least matched by his veneration for mind (and the transcendentalist quest of dissolving barriers between the two). His quarrel with incessant labor seems to be its detriment to the penetration of our awareness, and his call to action is one of introspection:

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 [shrine] of the mind.”

That society encourages the growth of individuals, each his own shrine, is Thoreau’s vision. Work should not keep us too busy for ourselves, but nudge us evermore towards ourselves. That our laborious activity — how we make a living — should not thicken but distill the opaque film of selfhood, revealing evermore universal intuitions.

Thoreau’s remedy, making a shrine of the mind, reflects his great mentor, Emerson’s own introspective call:

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind…But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            ~ Emerson, Self Reliance

This is the crucial caveat of the transcendentalist’s introspective doctrine: “Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself”. Not, as Biden hollers: Work, and you shall reinforce yourself. Do your work. Uncovering one’s own work is a grueling, interminable process. But a commitment to this process — the alchemical distillation of one’s subjectivity, the dispelling of egoic illusions in service of truth beyond opinion — is Thoreau’s path towards making a life that dabbles in ‘real business’.

The value of work, even the rubric of a culture, is the service it provides its people towards this contemplation. Thriving culture is the collective emancipation to introspection; the amalgamation of individuals reconsecrating themselves, doing their own work. The qualities of mind each individual lives from, and projects out into the world, onto her fellow people, can only be those found within themselves. Making a living and making a life coalesce in the ingenuity with which people, groups, species, fumble around with the enigmatic ends of life — the potentialities, and primacy, of mind.


Culture More Than Potatoes

When we’ve had enough of earning a living in lieu of doing the actual living, and crave a deeper relationship to the vivifying perplexities of being, Thoreau calls for a taxation of our “great resources”:

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 [and women] — those rare fruits called heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, and redeemers.”

(Interesting to note that Thoreau’s critique remains on the mark. Even today, American culture is largely gripped by the mass-production and consumption of starches and sugars)

Shedding these diabetic fetters, he sings praise of “redeemers”. Not philosophers in the dry, academic sense. The last thing Thoreau preaches is a proliferation of university departments as the mages of philosophy; philosophy is not an accumulation of any particular knowledge, but an earnest and penetrating engagement with the human question of how to live. Thoreau’s redeemers are those whose lives are a sort of transcendental work, actively sweeping the times into the updrafts of eternity — the relative into the absolute.

Alan Watts’ answer, ‘excellent things for their own sake’, is an iteration of Thoreau’s transcendental work, Emerson’s “do your work”, all of which, in Watts’ words, cultivate our ability to “peek” into the troves of the Universe:

…you are rather a sort of nerve-ending through which the universe is taking a peek at itself, which is why, deep down inside, almost everyone has a vague sense of eternity.” (Watts, In My Own Way)

But if this registers as hopelessly fanciful, Thoreau does not ignore the underbelly of communal living — politics, laws, institutions, laundry:

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 infrahuman, a kind of vegetation…Thus our life is…a remembering, of that which we should never have been conscious of…Why should we not meet…to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning?”

The work to be consciously performed, the wellspring of dignity and self-respect, is the finding of that “vague sense of eternity” in the “ever-glorious morning”.

Sources/Further Reading

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