On Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau

On Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

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This book has arguably changed more lives than any other self help book. It was written by a rebellious individual who spent his entire life within the confines of a small American town, yet whose brave, outspoken words met a desperate need which went on to change the world. His basic principle was that individuals should be free to determine their own lives, free of needless government intervention. Thoreau was a passionate advocate of minimal government. ‘That government is best,’ he wrote, ‘which governs least’. Governments act as an impediment to progress.  The American colonies had achieved success, not through the activities of their politicians, but through the concerted actions of its people. Voting is of little benefit if it is not backed by action. Why should we allow the majority to prevail, if we think their policies are flawed?  Governments would have us believe that we will cause more harm than good if we dissent, and display the mildest signs of anarchic self-determination. ‘They think that, if they should resist. The remedy would be worse than the evil,’ wrote the prophet of Walden Pond. Anyone who disagrees with what the government is doing should cease to give it their support, if necessary by withholding their taxes. ‘If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood,’ he wrote. ‘A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority.’  To maintain our principles, and in search of probity and justice, we should be prepared to go to prison, for ‘Under a government which imprison any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.’

True to his beliefs, Thoreau withheld his taxes in protest against the perpetuation of slavery and the waging of the Mexican war. As a result he was sent to prison, but only for a day, his debts being discharged by a well-meaning aunt. Many consider Thoreau to have been a well-meaning fraud. Certainly he led a cushioned life compared with Nelson Mandela, who suffered twenty-seven years gruelling imprisonment in his battle against apartheid, He gave the impression that he spent his entire life as a backwoodsman on the shores of Walden Pond, whereas in fact he was in daily contact with his family and friends in Concord, Massachusetts, and generally continued eat most days in the family home, and work in the family factory which were both no more than a gentle stroll from the log cabin in which he stayed for just two years. As one critic has commented: ‘The more one reads in Thoreau’s unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their tree-house in the backyard and pretending they’re camping in the heart of the jungle.’

But self-help gurus should not to be judged solely by their private lives. It’s not where they stand that matter, but where they point. Thoreau was a Harvard graduate, as was his maternal grandfather, who in 1766 led the university’s ‘Butter Rebellion’, which was the first recorded student protest movement in the New World colonies. He was a highly educated man, and while living at Walden Pond gave a series of lectures at the Concord Lyceum which he called ‘The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government’. These seminars formed the basis of a magazine article, which after revision was published as ‘Civil Disobedience’,  the slim volume which has become the bible of all the world’s major civil disobedience crusades. Principles must take precedence over edicts, Thoreau observed. If the law is clearly unjust it deserves no respect and should be broken.

It was this message which inspired Gandhi to embark on his campaign of non-violent resistance to imperialist rule.  He claimed that Thoreau’s ‘ideas influenced me greatly, I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Thoreau’s book ‘is written for all time’, he wrote in his own manual ‘For Passive Resisters’. ‘Its incisive logic is unanswerable.’  Martin Luther King’s ideas of non-violent protest also came from repeated readings of Thoreau’s essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’ As he records in his autobiography: ‘During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of non-violent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is co-operation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across that Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are heirs of a legacy of creative protest.’  These are the grounds for advocating that Thoreau’s book should be considered for inclusion in the Top Ten most influential self-help books of the last two hundred years.  But does it retain the power to rouse us from our slumbers today? Is there not a risk that we’ve lived for so long in societies ruled by a dominant political party, that we no longer recognize that in a true democracy or ‘demos-kratia’ the power should always lie with the people?

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