The Concept of Conformity in Cornpone Opinions by Mark Twain and Life without Principle by Henry David Thoreau

In both Mark Twain’s, Cornpone Opinions, and Henry David Thoreau’s, Life Without Principle, humanity is questioned by acknowledging that self-approval comes from making your thoughts conform with the majority’s belief system. Mark Twain has always been a keen observer of human nature. For example, he wrote about those people who he was surrounded with in his everyday life. Mark Twain’s idea that group thinking is inevitable is mirrored in Thoreau’s, Life Without Principle. Thus the two essays convey a clear message that the dull opinions of mankind are what propels society’s basic belief systems. The idea that fads result from the habits of man and not an individual’s thinking, “it is our nature to conform; it is a force which not many can successfully resist” is an excellent example.

Henry David Thoreau presents the idea that the everyday man, going about his daily routine, is a slave of a system based on the commerce of the American society. Additionally Thoreau writes, “We are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce and manufactures an agriculture and the like, which are but means, and not the end.” That statement shows Thoreau’s point that commerce rules the man. Thoreau is against the wage system as well as the political system of America. Basically the everyday man has bought his way into the belief that working daily is the expected norm. Man has also come to accept the political belief systems and uses those communal thoughts as his own. Henry David Thoreau’s, Life Without Principles, and Mark Twain’s, Cornpone Opinions, have a similar conclusion; the inability for mankind to think without the aid of his peers.

Mark Twain, considered the “father of American literature”, attempts to define “Cornpone” and prove that it is based on the need for approval by other men of similar mindsets. In the opening, Twain writes about the positive qualities of his friend whom he is listening to without the permission of his mother. Another clear example of how he knows his mother has a reason for not allowing him to listen, based on her conforming to society’s belief against black men being equal to white. However, before he finishes he leaves the reader with the knowledge that the friend is in fact a slave. Thus Twain’s, Corn- pone Opinions, immediately shows that he too has fallen under the spell of public opinion. Otherwise why would Twain even mention that the friend is a slave. He is saying it is only human nature to believe what others believe and in this case it is the inferiority of the black man. Twain invites the reader to become aware that our opinions are strictly influenced by the actions of others and the acceptance of our peers. Slavery is a perfect example of an accepted belief, “changes are not reasoned out; we merely notice and conform…

As a rule we do not think, we only imitate”. This implies that slavery, itself, was a shared belief that quietly became the norm and thus accepted. Here, Twain was clearly stating he was a supporter of the abolition of slavery. In the short essay, The Cornpone Opinions, published after Mark Twain’s death in 1910, the great humorist, presents the notion that society’s beliefs are affected by social pressures to conform to an agreed upon norm. Basically, people have a natural tendency to conform and be similar to those around them. When a new idea or fad comes along it is first seen as odd and unflattering.

As more and more attempt to imitate the new fad or idea it becomes accepted. The new idea or fad is only acceptable because all the others are doing it, “Even the woman who refuses from first to last to wear the hoop skirt comes under the law and is its slave; she could not wear the skirt and have her own approval; and that she must have, she cannot help herself.” Thus public opinion is based on nothing more that man’s acceptance of other’s thoughts. However, Twain is not preaching and presents the case through clear examples filled with extensive details and descriptions such as, “He was a gay and impudent and satirical and delightful young black man”. Similarly, Henry David Thoreau’s, Life Without Principles, concludes that man has accepted and conformed to society’s opinion and norm of working for wages. His essay includes several examples of how the everyday man is being turned into a slave by the need to work for wages and not live life based on love of life.

His arguments are told through a series of stories. Each story illustrates the notion that wisdom and loving life itself are far more valuable than the “wages” they work so hard for everyday. “To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse. If the laborer gets no more than the wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself”, beautifully displays Thoreau’s belief that being able to enjoy poetry or merely go for a walk in the woods alone, holds much greater satisfaction for the everyday man.

Man must be able to see beyond the need to make a living by merely working for a paycheck. The evolution of, Life Without Principles, came out of lectures given in 1854. It was through those lectures that you see Thoreau’s philosophy aligning with Transcendentalism. Thoreau is begging man to follow his heart’s desire, in order to have a fulfilling and worthwhile life. Henry David Thoreau is stating that the corporeal things around us are beneath the spiritual ideals that perpetuate the universe. Mankind should be more concerned with living life, rather that making a living in order to survive life. Thoreau writes about doing a fulfilling job, one that you can be personally invested in and not just collect a paycheck from its’ completion. The fact that the essay was written in 1863 and published posthumously, is hard to believe as it clearly replicates the present day workaholic syndrome so prevalent in our society.

It’s very similar in fact to the “rat race of business”. Life is a series of business deals and one is always in search of the almighty dollar as a reward for a good job. For example Thoreau writes, “This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work”. Thoreau also attempts to illustrate that you should only work at something you truly love. In fact, hiring someone who does not love his job is also a nono.

Thus, what is it that you can do to discover your passion and calling, meanwhile inspiring others to do the same. The wealth of knowledge is way more valuable if you are working and enjoying what you do on a daily basis. So you can see that both Twain and Thoreau are critics of basic American belief systems. Twain is arguing that there is no such thing as an original opinion about anything. Thoreau argues, that there has never been a time when man wasn’t forced to believe in some kind of conformity, such as you must earn a wage by working. The writers’ had similar writing styles and used vivid descriptions to illustrate their points. In addition, both Thoreau and Twain were great observers of man and the world around him. Thoreau seems to be more concerned with separating himself from mankind in search of the meaning of life. Twain seems to want to focus on man and the uncanny ability to follow the leader. Either way, both Cornpone Opinions and Life Without Principle, make you want to question the WHY in life.

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