Thoreau as Runner: Some thoughts on "Life Without Principle"

Here is the last paragraph of Thoreau's "Life Without Principle." It's a little long -- Thoreau takes his sauntering seriously -- but worth the attention:

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.

It is easy for the runner to see the influence of Thoreau's habitual walking (or "sauntering" as he preferred to call it) on his philosophical orientation. I do not want to reduce his philosophy to the fact that he was a walker, but I also do not want to minimize the role that this simple human activity might have taken in developing his philosophy. There is wisdom in regular movement. I'll put it like this: the title of this essay might as easily been "Life Without Walking."

Thoreau's profession was surveying, but he made his living with the less precise great art of  sauntering.

Thoreau never really tells us what his Principle is. He simply notes the absence of principle in so much of living. The absence is noted in a specific effect: namely, too much remembering of the underbrush of life -- politics, routine, gossip. The unprincipled life is the life that lets its consciousness be dominated by things that might be made into unconscious habits. In other words, the unprincipled life is the life that wastes effort on things that ought to require no effort -- and therefore squanders this most precious of human resources.

A life of principle, then, is a life that conserves effort for the things that are worthy of effort. To be principled is not so much to be hardworking or to live one's life according to a rule. To be principled is to recognize the relationship between effort and choice, to deliberate on this relationship, and to take responsibility for it. We often confuse being principled with having a rule for choosing and applying it. But of course rules and values can be applied without any application of intelligence. The difficulty is not in possessing or acquiring a principle or values, but in being principled. These are two different things entirely.

I want to think that this notion of life without principle and the relationship between conscious and unconscious effort came to Thoreau as he was walking. As we runners know, the act of running itself is mostly unconscious. The habitual runner has trained himself to do a thing which would require immense effort and concentration for the non-runner. A ten miler for the well-trained runner is a chance for his mind to wander and reflect, a time for genuine companionship among a select crew, a time for escape from busyness and routine. We do not have to reflect on how to move our legs, on the pace we need to run, or even on the route we take. Such reflection would make the run worse, not better. Many a good run, even the best runs, have slipped underneath my feet without any consciousness at all -- the road simply stretching out, my legs simply churning, my feet lightly falling, my chest gently heaving, my heart beating as always.

It's paradoxical, but true -- the well trained runner can forget his body in ways that the non-runner must remember. Being in shape is a feeling almost like being disembodied. The body runs on its own; we reach the runner's grail: the tireless state, the unconscious body. This is such an exhilarating feeling because the mind is then liberated to float freely above and beyond. Having acquired the unconscious habits of the runner, we are in many ways liberated from the body.

My sense is that Thoreau knows this feeling from his daily walks and uses it as a critical threshold for this, his most concise and direct philosophical statement. A principled life would be one in which we have become well-trained in the underbrush of life such that we can perform the routine tasks of daily life almost unconsciously, saving the precious resource of effort for more noble endeavors. As the well-trained runner lives in his body, using his attention and effort only to keep it on the path and to get it out the door, so would the principled life save its attention and effort for its larger and wider vision, avoiding getting bogged down in the thistles and muck of petty politics.

In many ways the discipline of a principled life is the opposite of the pale shadow that goes by "discipline" in education -- where we teach students that discipline is about the effort of completing the daily assignment. The goal ought to be to produce the sorts of people who can handle the the daily assignment with little effort at all. Then, effort, the stuff of life, can be directed towards more expansive projects, like poetry, philosophy, love -- the things of genuine value.

Such discipline would look almost exactly like the discipline of the well-trained runner, who manages to smile and even laugh at paces that would make the rest shudder. This laughter is the mark of a principled life: not dyspeptic sacrifice but eupeptic joy.


  1. Great point about discipline in education ... being lost in K-12, and even at the university.

  2. i would like to be the sort of person "who can handle the the daily assignment with little effort at all."

    1. Sometimes it's precisely the lack of effort in the daily assignment that wears us down.

    2. that sounds like the opposite to what you said above.

      "The goal ought to be to produce the sorts of people who can handle the the daily assignment with little effort at all. Then, effort, the stuff of life, can be directed towards more expansive projects, like poetry, philosophy, love -- the things of genuine value."

      feel free to expound further. :)

    3. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

    4. might i suggest... a bran muffin?


  3. Hi, fantastic and complete blog, I really like.


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