Even the energy which is seemingly applied to destructive tasks is really subsidiary to a constructive ideal. Thus the hewing of timber is a destructive task, but its object is not to scatter trees around, but to make a clearing on which to plant wheat; or to have lumber, in order to build a house. So, also, we blast rock, in order to get stones for a stone wall, or for the filling of a road-bed. And we rip up old clothes in order to have rags, and to make room in our homes for other things. Destructiveness from a sheer love of destructiveness is not work—it is vandalism. The true Man works. When Adam’s crook-stick turned over the brown earth to make it fertile, he began the industry of the world. The whole horizon of man’s endeavor is spanned by one word, Work. It has built cities, bridged rivers, united continents, and sent the myriad spindles of trade whirring under a thousand changing skies.
Work is the open-sesame of success. It is curious to see how uneasily some men will roam from one end of the earth to the other, trying to find an easy place, a place where work will not be needed or required. There is no such place. The higher the honor, the harder the work. The power to work is ordinarily the measure of a man’s possibilities of success. Long hours, hard toil, lack of recognition and appreciation, drudgery, a thousand attempts to one successful issue,—these are the ways in which the colossal achievements of mankind have been built up. Work, as has well been said, is an ascending stairway. On its broad base are ranged all the multitudes of the earth. Those who can climb mount the higher and ever-narrowing stair.
The great man can begin anywhere, or with any task. He says, If I am going into the giant-business, I may as well begin now! Born and bred in the forest, he lays hand to his axe, and looking up at some tall oak, cries out, I will begin here! With the first stroke of the axe, success is not less sure than in his last endeavor. Success of the right kind is a scientific achievement.
The line has not yet been drawn, and I doubt whether it ever can be drawn, between productive and non-productive labor. There is a cleavage of tasks, however, which may be approximately expressed, as work that is done for support, for daily bread, and work which is done because certain faculties of mind and heart and soul demand expression, development, and scope. We all have powers which are willing to be set in action primarily for self-preservation—for personal, material, and transitory ends. We are also endowed with faculties which react, primarily, in behalf of universal aims, though that may not debar them from also bringing an advantage to ourselves. In proportion as we are talented, magnanimous, and high-minded, we delight in spending a part of our lives in working for the race.
Thus Thoreau, when he, “by surveying, carpentry and day-labor of various other kinds,” had earned $13.34, was doing income-work, the work by which he had to live. For the same purpose, he worked at raising potatoes, green corn, and peas. When he wrote Walden, he did a kind of work which also in time brought him an income. But he did not write Walden for food or money; he wrote it primarily because he liked to write, and for the benefit of mankind.