Thursday, August 12, 2010

Henry David Thoreau and "Civil Disobedience"

To speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. ---Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience" 

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a Harvard educated scholar who became a follower of the great American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He started out after university as an elementary school teacher but was dismissed for being not strict enough on his pupils--he would not exercise corporal punishment on his students.   He then became a surveyor to support himself while writing and also sold pencils for a time while living near Boston. 
He is remembered best today by political groups of all types for speaking out against authority, in essays and at least in one case, and in deeds such as public speaking  and spending a night in jail.

 To Thoreau, ideas and truth were more important than anything--even love. 

His greatest desire was to be self-sustaining.  In pursuit of this in 1845 he built a small cabin on some property owned by Emerson.  He spent some two years near Walden Pond, living mostly alone, with a copy of "The Iliad" to read and time to reflect and write "Walden", a collection of philosophical observations about the a life of humility, study, work   and conscience.  (Admittedly, he also came into town--Concord, Massachusetts-- and had Sunday dinner with his mother as well.) 
"Walden" has also become a primer of the environmental movement  since it is hard to be an individual when you are surrounded by a legion of striving urbanity. Nature affords us the time to reflect and draw strength from our inner selves.  

HIs next most famous work was an essay called "Civil Disobedience".  In it, he challenged the very notion that the United States had any right to make war on Mexico in 1846-7, especially since it was clear the war would lead to the spread of slave territories.  For refusing to pay his poll tax--to support elections and the Massachusetts regiments who were sent to the war--Thoreau himself spent  a night in jail and later wrote his essay about it.   This was shortly after the end of his stay at Walden. 

A dozen years later, Thoreau endorsed the desperate attempt of the followers of John Brown, the radical abolishionist, to seize the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in a quixotic attempt to free slaves in the South.  If Thoreau compromised his principas against violence, he did it on the eve of the greatest war in American history, one fought in no small part because of the evils of slavery, a "peculiar institution" certainly worth fighting about as any fighting done by the Founders of the UNited States against the British government over taxation.  

Thoreau died in 1862 in a nation engulfed in a war that at its end ultimately celebrated the ideal of its foundation--that all men were created equal and that conscience can overcome conformity.  

It says something that so many have drawn strength from this singular man and his commitment to an inner truth. Here are two great men influenced and inspired by his legacy.

"I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest." - Martin Luther King, Jr, Autobiography
        "Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practise in himself. ... He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable." - Mohandas Gandhi

It doesn't stop there---here is some music inspired by Thoreau's efforts, from Rage Against the Machine:


  1. I hadn`t heard of Thoreau. Interesting guy and an interesting period. I guess civil disobedience as been the credo of many brave people who overturned laws and changed the course of history. Ang San Su Kyi, for instance, in Burma at this very moment.

  2. Would he be the reason why so many Americans are such contrary folk I wonder?

  3. Good point Jeff. And he did live in interesting times, when the issue of the extension of slavery and its very existence seemed to be so tied into America's notion of manifest destiny. Its expansion and very existence was, of course, repellant to those who took the Declaration of Independence of America seriously. Shame he didn't live to at least see the end of legal protections that Lincoln began in earnest with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

    It's interesting to see the evolution of America away from hypocrisy and the exceptions to justice for some have been eroded away by people like Thoreau. It's a never-ending process for certain.

  4. Not entirely, Jim, but this guy Henry Thoreau sure has given a lot of contrary-minded folks some good intellectual ammunition to support stubborn contrariness.

    There's a theory that many of the original settlers of the American colonies were of a contrary nature: Puritans looking for a "New Jerusalem", Quakers looking for a place of toleration, or those just trying to get away from authority (like many of the Scots-Irish) who were always trying to open up the frontier "just over the next mountain" to the worry of the British officials who didn't want to rile up the Indian tribes and the Indigenous peoples themselves who felt threatened by land hungry whites.

    Americans are definitely contrary by culture, that's for sure. We just can't often get together and agree in large part what it is to be most contrary about! ;-)

  5. I, of course, had my tongue firmly in my cheek there Doug. That said, it does seem, with the benefit of the distance that the Atlantic separates us, that Americans are a noisy disagreeable bunch.

  6. I knew you were being tongue in cheek, Jim. I'm guessing you may have noticed that particular American trait that transcends race and ancestry--the belief that everybody has a right to his or her opinion over here, as individuals or in a pack.

    And to make an ass of him or herself by not holding our opinions back ;-)

  7. I first came across Walden when I was a student around 30 odd years ago now and was captivated by Thoreau's organic utopian fundamentalism.
    He was an early anarchistic role model, his distrust of government and belief in the free individuals right and duty to resist the arbitrary power of elected dictatorships has endeared him to all people of goodwill across the world and across the ages I think.

    The video is really good too, I like Rage Against The Machine I think their name is also a moral imperative that cannot be denied nor avoided.

    Henry David Thoreau embodies the freedom of America and the desire to reconstruct ourselves in a land of plenty in ways that only we can decide, free of the Crown and taxation by a metropolitan power.

    We might consider the demands of the Afghan insurgents in somewhat the same light perhaps?

    Thoreau like Kropotkin, Bakunin, Godwin and all the other rebels against industrialisation and comodification only imagine they are in dispute with Marx, they are not in my opinion and they suggest possibilities that are no less unlikely than the possibilities that the advertising industry claim lie open to us today.

    Thanks for posting this inspirational overview of the works of a great man and a great American man to boot....the new world remains a vision, but the USA is now like Europe before it was.... the 'old world' and the place pioneers must escape from and no longer least in my opinion Doug.

  8. This is a first for me Doug, I never heard of the man. Yet he stood for what he believed. Seemingly there is that fundamental culture pending what part of America one resides in. As I have always said America is and has always been a very proud country. Certainly we see challenges to the system there yet it happens within most every country even here. Look at Pierre E. Trudeau, he was a man that literally challenged many things within Canada - very atypical but as well he didn’t go over well with many other leaders, for that matter he didn’t go over all that well within Canada either but there was more that he accomplished and was very not passive with anything he did. He stood for what he believed in. The earliest occurrence of collective civil disobedience took place during the Roman Empire. Since that time that is on record, we have always within the world had challenges against power with governments, with a variety of areas.

    I really don't see America at large as being one, which is as loud as it seems, I think that there are some that truly challenge the system within a way when they feel that it's justified. I don't know a country wish is a democracy that doesn’t. Yet culturally one state can be very much different than another as different regions within many democratic countries do the very same but in a culturally different manner.

    This Henry David Thoreau seemingly was a man that did challenge areas obviously and I think where there is merit (not media), there is something that does come out of it. There is that old saying if something is working don't break it, however when something is at question there is always that very right to challenge a system of government or any other areas in which is viewed to need to be questioned.

    History proves that it not always worked but I find that exercising that right in what one believes in is of worth. I think within any given society there will always be what you call civil disobedience, but I do think there is merit within it. There is that right to question areas. And within most cases as we see now and we see in history it has always taken place. Regardless of the outcome.

    A great write Doug. Very interesting to read as we are within a time were there is much that is being questioned and by many.

  9. Yes, someone did some very good work on the You Tube video there. An excellent vehicle of a song I think.

    I think the anarchistic spirit is one that Americans often embrace without necessarily using the word. Thoreau didn't desire what others had, he only desired what was his own. I think that was what he was striving for, a freedom most Americans today would find hard to locate as we are no longer the "new world", per se, and its likely that many nations in Europe have as great an opportunity for freedom from want and fear than we can hope to possess.

    America has created a "bankster" sort of freedom, letting the top dogs take what they want and letting the what scraps fall from the table to the people who should be in charge in any reasonable republic--people who seek justice, not avarice.

    We need more of the common good this man spoke about, and less of the smugness that comes from the influence of wealth or a temporary majority in the halls of government.

    To the extent that those in the Afghan insurgency want to live lives free of foreign duress, they too could be practitioners of freedom. As Camus pointed out in "The Rebel" , though, even a just rebellion has to have some "limits", which of course not being an Afghan I cannot determine. The universal dangers of unchecked power and centralization I think are ones to beware of whenever the dogs of war break loose. And a successful revolution, large or small in scope, shouldn't, from a disinterested vantage, be similar or worse than what it sought to overcome in the first place.

    I'm sure Thoreau would have quite a few interesting things to say about consumerism and its lack of ultimate satisfaction so I think you're quite right.

    Thanks for adding your insight to this distinctive fellow and his writings. You are in good company as you can see above as far as being admirers of this ultimately humble but very brave man.

  10. I think that was the power Henry David Thoreau wanted each adult person to have, Jack. The right to question and be heard, not simply to be a contrarian, but to believe each individual had within him or herself a conscience worht hearing, above and beyond what those around him might espouse or seek to enforce up on him or her.

    As you rightly pointed out, this freedom has ancient roots and it will never be a finished work.

  11. Beyond even our own lifetime but and earlier when I was on here I really do feel that way. As within society we shall always hopefully have that very right to question. For this always is a right that we so often take for granted but if we have it certainly we can use it within a meaningful manner. And it's never ending...but a given right kind of work.

  12. Yes, I know I do take it for granted. But i also feel the right to question is about the only justification governement has in a civilized nation to even exist.

  13. That is a great quote within itself Doug!

  14. I know I'd be guilty of that as well I fear.

    However, it seems that opinion in America is more often like to be taken as truth (especially when projected at high volume) than many other places. There does not seem to be the healthy scepticism in as much evidence in the US that there perhaps should be.

    As for the freedom that Thoreau espoused, who could argue against the principles. But I would argue that America would perhaps not have become the great nation it has without the, as some would see it, the shackles of the government machine to harness and direct the energy and innovation that characterised the Americans over the last two centuries?

  15. Thanks Jack. I'm sure I stole it from somewhere.

  16. Yes, we have plenty of political jingoists who play to emotions on television and radio, Jim. And many people rally around too much, and don't think for themselves.

    Good point! What you stated is exactly the point I'd like to make with the fundamentalist anti-government crowd--the Founders of this country feared monarchy and corruption, that's why they tried to find balance between the diffusion of political power, but it was the Federal government that organized the railroads to be built across the country, brought needed regulation to the banking industry, organized the space program and brought force to bear when the rights of minority groups were violated. So, yes, these "shackles" directed positive energy in many, many cases.

  17. Country folk are the minority. I would say the UK has far more country folk than we do

  18. It depends on which side of the argument you are standing on. i personally find the British a tad pompous for thier own good. Especially since the have deviated from the true english language.

  19. It is amazing how many people insert their right to do that on a regular basis. I really wish people would take a moment to think before the speak

  20. That would be a better world, Fred. Thing is now, in my opinion, so many more people can be pundits. The explosion in cable news and the Internet creates opportunities to avoid a formal position on a subject and simply play to popular emotions. And that's our loss.

    Writing full sentances, adhereing to profesional standards and independant editing are so last century. And it floats down to the regular discourse, as you have seen if you've ever wandered over to a flaming free-for-all on some of these websites where people hide behind made-up names.

  21. It is amazing how many people hide behind the computer screen. I know over half of them would never speak to me or any other a real life human the way they type. I am also amazed by their lack of spell checks and punctuation. There are many who do not take any pride in their use of the written word. Abbreviations have become all the rage.

  22. It is hard to take anyone to serious when the write btw my bff is lol at u

  23. They try to come off like a John Wayne type, but most of them are Barney Fife's very likely. And yes they have no respect for the written word!

    Democratization of media has a few drawbacks thanks to those jokers.

  24. That phrase always cuts me to the core, Fred. There's no comeback for that one. ;-)

  25. If they ever put some effort into researching the subject I think they would actually have a different point of view

  26. If they were less busy sending out blow-torch comments on blogs, yes.