Henry David Thoreau's belief in "non-conformity," is seen in, "Civil Disobedience"—standing up to the government if necessary.
Thoreau was arrested for not paying a tax—on principle. "…some one interfered, and paid the tax…" and he was released, and so wrote "Resistance to Civil Government" initially to "argue the moral necessity of resisting the institution of slavery."
Thoreau makes his stance clear from the very beginning of the essay:
I HEARTILY ACCEPT THE MOTTO, “That government is best which governs least”…[moreover] “That government is best which governs not at all...”
The government was needed to an extent, but should not be an entity that controlled the will of the people, but rather served the people. People created the government, but often did not have the opportunity to use it for their good:
...[it] is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.
Thoreau argues that often times the government becomes a tool of the few rather than the "arm" of the population as a whole. Special interest groups rob the people of their power, which is counter to the principles of those who created government in the first place. In this way, the government which was conceived for the best of all purposes has lost its "integrity."
Thoreau insists that the accomplishments of the country have been achieved by the efforts of its people, its individuals—keeping the country's people free, educating, settling the West, etc.—and might have done more had the government been used as it should have been.
Thoreau sees the hand of government too heavily put to use where it should not be. He does not press for the absence of government, but change:
I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.
Arguing again for the right of the individual, Thoreau asks:
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?
Thoreau calls for the conscience of men to act, as not seen in government, specifically regarding slavery:
I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also.
And while a man may argue against what the government does, he must be sure his actions support those words:
...I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue [these wrongs] sitting upon another man's shoulders.
The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war...
Thoreau calls upon the people to stop the "machine" of the unjust government. The single act is powerful:
For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever.
Thoreau reflects upon his own imprisonment brought on because he would not pay a tax, insisting that jail only controlled his body—not his mind or will.
As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body…
He simply refused to pay a tax he did not believe in. In the scheme of things, government rules him a short time before he dies.
It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free...unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.
He will be ruled by his conscience:
...even such as I am willing to submit to,— for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I...
Thoreau calls for men to submit to conscience first, and government second.
I won’t pretend Henry David Thoreau’s writing thoroughly interests me, as much as I admire him. Truth be told, I find much of his work boring and wordy.
His ideas on government however, are quite interesting, especially coming from someone of his time period. He is among the ranks of abolitionist thinkers, like Josiah Warren, who correctly see in direct slavery the same basic injustices a subject suffers under a government.
Civil Disobedience, or Resisting Civil Government as it was originally titled, was published in 1849 after being first delivered as a lecture. Thoreau was 32 years old, living in Massachusetts. He was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and had tutored his children. At this point Thoreau had already spent his time at Walden Pond.
Civil Disobedience on Amazon.
Thoreau had also spent a night in jail years earlier after refusing to pay a poll tax, which he discusses in Civil Disobedience.
Although the essay was written 168 years ago, it can still spark a lively debate about contemporary tactics for resisting oppressive government.
Here are the ten best quotes from that essay, if you do not have the patience to read the entire 25 pages.
“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.”
This is how Thoreau begins the essay. The point is that government is only required when things need to be forced, and someday, we will live in a world where everything worth being done at all is done with consent of all involved.
“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.”
Sometimes people need to get together to make things happen. A government is one way to do that, if you need to build a road, or keep people safe. But sometimes governments also murder millions of people, keep entire segments of the population in slavery, and bring the earth to the brink of nuclear holocaust. But those roads though…
“Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of it’s way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.”
Seriously, everything the government takes credit for is really just done by our fellow human beings. There is no reason the good things couldn’t be done voluntarily, which would also help us do away with the bad, like the government stopping innovation and destroying the freedom to create.
It’s almost like Thoreau knew Citizen’s United was coming. Government, in contrast to business, is like a train without a conductor. It barrels on ahead towards destruction, while the men in the back keep shoveling coal into the furnace; because after all, they are just doing their job.
“It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even well disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you see a file of soldiers… marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences…”
“All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a betting with right and wrong… I caste my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority… A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.”
It’s a gamble whether the majority will be right or not. When you vote, you first assume that you can tell what is right given the circumstances and available options, but you also accept that what you think is wrong will happen if a majority wills it. We should take a better stand on right and wrong than leaving it to chance!
“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his own contemplations too.”
We’ve all got our own stuff going on, and it is impossible to solve all of earth’s issues. If you want do something bigger, by all means please do, the world needs it!
But when you must take from others in order to “save” the world, you are failing to account for others wants and needs, which may not align with yours. Any “help” you give others must be funded and provided voluntarily to be just.
“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth,-certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
We must disobey unjust laws, or else we are allowing them to continue and hurt others. Certainly we must break a law that requires us to do evil.
“Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”
What gives the government the right to do anything? The biggest muscles, and the most guns. That’s it.
“The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”
“I please myself with imagining a State at last that can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”
If the state has a true and useful purpose, then why should it care if some do not participate? That is the next step in government, one where consent is required, that does not force those to conform who cause no trouble, and do their own thing.
The world is improving as individuals gain more rights, and it makes sense to think that someday we will live in a world where governments are hardly recognizable as the current monsters they are. Instead, government will be a voluntary tool of organization, not a mandatory oppressive authority.
Do you agree or disagree with Thoreau’s main points?
Civil Disobedience on Amazon.
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