AD's English Literature : Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’: Views Government as a Fundamental Hindrance to the Creative Enterprise of the People

Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’: Views Government as a Fundamental Hindrance to the Creative Enterprise of the People

“I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,—”That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.” - Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’
                                     - Henry David Thoreau in ‘Civil Disobedience’

Writers such as Henry David Thoreau in ‘Civil Disobedience’ (also known by the title “Resistance to Civil Government”) along with Herman Melville in ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, suggest that democracy can actually oppress and restrict the individual. Thoreau views government as a fundamental hindrance to the creative enterprise of the people it purports to represent. Read More Criticism  

American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote “Resistance to Civil Government” in 1849. Thoreau asserted that the United States government lacked moral authority because it condoned slavery, and he saw the Mexican War (1846-1848) as an attempt to extend slavery to the western United States. Thoreau believed that publicly disobeying the laws of an unjust government would bring other people to oppose that government's actions. Read More Essay  “Resistance to Civil Government” inspired leaders of 20th century resistance movements, such as Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr Thoreau firmly asserts the primacy of individual conscience over collective pragmatism. Civil disobedience however has two restrictions: the means of resistance advocated and practiced by Thoreau are non-violent and that the act of resistance should specifically target the injustice to be remedied. Moral objection to a particular law does not authorize nonobservance of all laws. Some aspects of Thoreau’s argument seem anti-democratic on their face, particularly his disregard for majority opinion as expressed through elected representatives. His fundamental respect for democracy and the Constitution coexist with a pervasive cynicism. Read More Criticism  

Thoreau the transcendentalist says “Transcendentalism was, at its core, a philosophy of naked individualism, aimed at the creation of the new American, the self-reliant man, complete and independent." Although they stressed self-reform the transcendentalists participated in most of the social action movements of the times Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is one such work.

In perhaps his most famous essay, “Civil Disobedience” (1849), the American author Henry David Thoreau set forth the basic tenets of civil disobedience for the first time. The individual, Thoreau claimed, is “a higher and independent power,” from which the state obtains its power. Read More Essay  Civil disobedience was later practiced by pacifists and by individuals devoted to such causes as woman suffrage and prohibition. Two notable examples of progress were achieved through the practice of civil disobedience in the mid-20th century. The first, the independence of India, was largely a result of Mohandas Gandhi's programs of satyagraha (Sanskrit for “truth and firmness”), which followed the principle of nonviolent resistance to British colonial laws. The second involved civil rights legislation in the United States, in which the nonmilitant efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., played a primary role. Read More Criticism  

The Idea of Majority Ruling: In ‘Civil Disobedience’, Thoreau criticizes the American Government for its democratic nature, viz., the idea of majority ruling. Thoreau portrays this very fundamental element of democracy where the power belongs to the majority as a brutish fight where the strongest wins. Thoreau, the transcendentalist believes in the importance of the individual, in a society where there are many individuals with conflicting perceptions and beliefs. Read More Essay Unlike Emerson, Thoreau rejects passivity and challenges his readers to stand up against the government that focuses on majorities over individuals. Thoreau describes the majority in a democracy as men who “serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies…in most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense”. He feels that those who belong to a democracy are essentially machines controlled by the majority, lacking in ability to make choices for themselves. Thoreau repeatedly condemns the democratic system for it is lack of morality and tendency to disempowering the individual. Read More Criticism  

Individual Conscience and Morality:  Thoreau objects to the notion of majority ruling on which democracy is theoretically founded, noting that the views of the majority do not always coincide with the morally right one. Thoreau turns to the issue of effecting change through democratic means. Read More Essay The position of the majority, however legitimate in the context of a democracy, is not tantamount to a moral position. A man has an obligation to act according to the dictates of his conscience, even if the latter goes against majority opinion, the presiding leadership, or the laws of the society.

Resistance: In the American tradition, men have a recognized and cherished right of revolution, from which Thoreau derives the concept of civil disobedience. A man disgraces himself by associating with a government that treats even some of its citizens unjustly, even if he is not the direct victim of injustice. Read More Essay Thoreau takes the issue with William Paley, an English theologian and philosopher, who argues that any movement of resistance to government must balance the enormity of the grievance to be redressed and the “probability and expense” of redressing it. It may not be convenient to resist, and the personal costs may be greater than the injustice to be remedied; however, Thoreau firmly asserts the primacy of individual conscience over collective pragmatism.    

Thoreau’s notion of service to one’s own country paradoxically takes the form of resistance against it. Resistance is the highest form of patriotism because it demonstrates a desire not to subvert government but to build a better one in the long term. Read More Criticism  

Along these lines, Thoreau does not advocate a wholesale rejection of government, but resistance to those specific features deemed to be unjust or immoral.   Thoreau believes that the real obstacle to reform lies with those who disapprove of the measures of government while tacitly lending it their practical allegiance. At the very least, if an unjust government is not to be directly resisted, a man of true conviction should cease to lend it his indirect support in the form of taxes. Thoreau acknowledges that it is realistically impossible to deprive the government of tax dollars for the specific policies that one wishes to oppose. Still, complete payment of his taxes would be tantamount to expressing complete allegiance to the State. Read More Criticism  

Money is generally corrupting force because it binds men to the institutions and the government responsible for unjust practices and policies. Read More Essay Thoreau sees a paradoxically inverse relationship between money and freedom. The poor man has the greatest liberty to resist because he depends the least on the government for his own welfare and protection. For the ‘rich man’, crudely speaking, the consequences of disobedience often seem too great, either to his property or personal standing in society. Read More Criticism  

State Vs Individual: In contrast to his repeated comparison of the State to a machine, Thoreau personifies the State “as a lone woman with her silver spoons”. He casts government not as a mechanical agent of injustice but as a feminized object of pity. Thoreau’s confrontation with the State proves to him that physical violence is less powerful than individual conscience. Bodies can be contained behind walls, but ideas cannot. During his stay in prison, Thoreau comes to the realization that, far from being a formidable brute force, government is in fact weak and morally pathetic. That he should choose the figure of a woman to make this point reveals an interestingly gendered conception of civil disobedience, given the constant emphasis on the virtues of men in relation to the State, here personified as a woman. Read More Essay

Despite his stance of civil disobedience on the questions of slavery and the Mexican war. Thoreau claims to have great respect and admiration for the ideals of American government and its institutions. Thoreau goes so far as to state that his first instinct has always been conformity. Statesmen, legislators, politicians are unable to scrutinize the government that lends them their authority. Thoreau values their contributions to society, their pragmatism and their diplomacy, but feels that only someone outside of government can speak the Truth about it. Read More Criticism  

Democracy is not the last step in the evolution of the government, as there is still greater room for the State to recognize the freedom and rights of the individual. Thoreau concludes on a Utopian note, saying such a State is one he has imagined “but not yet anywhere seen”. Upon closer examination, it is apparent that Thoreau derives his justification of resistance both from the historical tradition of revolution in America and also from religious sources as well. Throughout Civil Disobedience, passages from the Bible are referenced and seamlessly integrated into his argument about political dissent and civil disobedience. Thoreau cites Corinthians to emphasize the importance of individual conscience. Later, he quotes from Matthew to underscore his point about government and the corrupting effects of wealth. Thoreau’s allusions to the Bible are imbued with strong romantic and naturalist imagery. The source of truth is a “stream” that comes “trickling into this lake or that pool” from which wise men “drink”. Read More Criticism   Such imagery points to Thoreau’s transcendentalist belief that God is ultimately found within nature. Thoreau turns to another organic metaphor: as soon as an individual has been cultivated and “ripened” to the point of maturity, the State should allow him “to drop off” the tree and to live free and independently.

Thoreau counterbalances this idealistic vision with a more historical overview of government, commenting on the changing relationship in modern times between people and those who rule and legislate. The momentum of that change has favoured greater individualism and autonomy: “The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.” Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience fits into the larger historical narrative of “progress” by empowering the individual to achieve greater freedom and equality for him and others.

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