Life Without Principle by Henry David Thoreau: Reading and Meditation

June 7, 2020  • Todd Breyfogle

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Life Without Principle, Henry David Thoreau


The language of principle, like the language of values, is in everyday speech the language of transaction. I hold to my principles, I sacrifice them up, I engage in trade-offs. Principle for Thoreau, by contrast, is an architectural matter—principles are not something that we possess, but the fundament upon which we build. “We select granite for the underpinning of our houses and barns…but we do not ourselves rest on an underpinning of granitic truth.” We are, Thoreau suggests, more concerned with the forms, the filigrees, the trappings than we are of the densities of truth. On what do we place the scaffolding of our lives? To what degree do we prevail upon others to build their lives on a solid foundation rather than upon sand? Honesty, sincerity—these the animals exhibit. Steadiness and solidity—these are the qualities of stone. Together with truth these are the qualities of principle. Do we demand these qualities of ourselves? Do we demand these qualities of others? Do others demand the same of us? Where do we find the underpinning of granitic truth?

Todd Breyfogle, Denver, Colorado

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