Henry David Thoreau: Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, written in walden jail centers on man's willingness to accept intrusive government.

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, which centers primarily on man's willingness or unwillingness to accept the archetypal conventions of politics, was written in 1849 in response to Thoreau's short stint in the Walden town jail for his refusal to pay a poll tax to support the Mexican War. Emphasizing the magnitude and significance of individuality vs. conformity, Thoreau expresses a strong distaste for the intrusive role of the government in people's lives, particularly in regards to the Mexican War. His view is that the state would operate much more efficiently without the endless and essentially gratuitous intervention of the government. His reasoning behind this is essentially that the government is continuously throwing up seemingly insurmountable obstacles to block the path toward individual success. As a result of mankind's frustration at not being able to circumvent these obstacles, man instead marches in line at the government's bidding, believing only with the government's guidance will they be able to successfully maneuver the path to individual freedom. Thoreau found it ironic, however, that this supposed path to individual freedom was paved by conformist mindsets.

Thoreau begins his essay by advocating the renowned motto, "That government is best which governs least." This carried to its natural conclusion is the complete absence of government, which Thoreau believes will eventually occur when society is willing to accept individual power as more significant than governmental rule. He principally objects to a standing army and the current "Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool." Yet Thoreau recognizes that the urgent need is not for a complete absence of government but for a more efficiently run government that does not attempt to dictate individual morality. He writes, "Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it."

Thoreau believes that the reason majorities usually rule is because they are the strongest physically, and their policies are based upon expediency. Thoreau questions whether it is not better to decide right and wrong by appealing to the conscience inherent in all individuals, rather than the rhetoric of a self-serving entity such as the government. He explains, "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." Thoreau continues to reiterate his point by indicating that unwarranted respect for the law is the ultimate catalyst that inspires soldiers to fight in wars against their better judgment. According to Thoreau, these soldiers have let themselves become machines, serving the state with their bodies and selling their minds and their souls to what is perceived to be the more powerful entity.

Thoreau rarely concurs with the rules and laws of government, finding them to be both arbitrary and oppressive. He also speculates as to the role that man plays in reacting to these laws. Thoreau perceives great injustice being done in order to support the government's propaganda to encourage man to accept the necessity of government rule. He feels that mankind follows these rules and laws despite knowing that they are wrong, simply because it is their moral obligation to do so. However this creates quite a paradox in that the moral obligation, according to Thoreau, should be to one's individual self, not the over-powerful government machine.

Thoreau suggests that this is a difficult distinction to make, but that when one is able to directly thrust injustice onto individual principal by following government's guidelines, then breaking a written law for the greater purpose of following a general human rule becomes compulsory. While Thoreau does admit that without rules, there would be unprecedented chaos, he finds it imperative that each individual depends on his own instincts of right and wrong, not allowing these choices to be dictated by the government or any outside force whose intentions are self-serving.

Thoreau strongly believes that individuals must be able to find a balance between their human nature and the boundaries to which they are supposed to conform. It is in this that we see how Thoreau follows the general guidelines of human nature. Civil Disobedience reinforces Thoreau's deep convictions that our minds and bodies are separate entities. He implies that there is a fine line between our body and minds, referring to the physical body and the soul as being different entities of himself, for "As they [the state] could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body."

While Thoreau was jailed for his decision not to pay a poll tax in support of the Mexican War, his reaction was not as negative as one might expect because he was continuing to prove his point. In fact, because Thoreau disagreed with so many factors of the state, the jail served as almost indisputable proof of his convictions. This leads him to conclude that "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." In this sense, he is separated from the state with which he finds so many problems. Experiencing the confinement of a jail cell was essentially a replenishing experience for Thoreau, in that it allowed him to recognize and subsequently analyze this division of body and mind. The fact that though his body was confined, his mind was as free to wander as ever was intrinsic to Thoreau's conclusions.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Thoreau's assessments. Much dissension arises from the fact that Civil Disobedience is a powerful, but sometimes misinterpreted means of public action. According to Howard Zinn, author of The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Civil disobedience is " the deliberate violation of a law for a social purpose. To violate a law for individual gain, for a private purpose, is an ordinary criminal act; it is not civil disobedience". While this definition seems plausible from most aspects, many have not accepted this or similar definitions as universal. For example, Lewis H. Van Dusen Jr., a vociferous advocate of punishable disobedience, states that the true nature of civil disobedience is based on impatience. Specifically, in an article in the ABA Journal, Van Dusen assesses that "Civil rights gains should continue to be won by the persuasion of Congress and other legislative bodies, and by the decision of courts".

Thoreau was particularly contemptuous of violent acts, believing that any dispute could be resolved peaceably through reason and intellect. However, not all modern day critics agree with Thoreau's purpose of universal non-violence either. For example, James Goodwin, author of an article titled Thoreau and John Brown: Transcendental Politics, published in Esquire magazine in 1979, writes: "Although Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., credited Thoreau as an inspiration to their mass campaigns of passive resistance, in crucial instances his thought appears to be more closely aligned to a doctrine of individual nihilism than to the philosophy of mass nonviolence"¦"

Thoreau viewed the government as the conventional order that serves only to prevent reform and change, as can be seen in the following passage from Civil Disobedience: "Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary." However it is important to keep in mind that in modern society, unification is still perceived as the ultimate goal of mankind. Thus despite Thoreau's and his many followers' convictions in the belief that the need for a controlling government will eventually be obsolete, there is little evidence that such a state of society is likely to occur.

Trending Now

© High Speed Ventures 2011