Personal Great Books · RAL

Completed: “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”

“Resistance to Civil Government” (later titled “On the Duty  of Civil Disobedience”)
Henry David Thoreau

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; 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.

Even had it not been for the currently on-going Transcendentalist Month, I would have likely picked up “Civil Disobedience” in light of various current events. From Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street, the news this year seems to be filled with modern-day acts of civil resistance (and sometimes not so civil) to established government systems, inspiring my desire to read the original source. Thoreau’s essay is curious in that it is both very much of its time—referencing numerous current events and opinions—and continuously relevant in the more than 160 years since its initial publication. Figures as various as Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were all influenced by its contents and its ideas of non-violent resistance continue to hold sway.

There are two interesting aspects to Thoreau’s line of thought. The first is that he appears to be advocating against any government at all, or at least a very limited one. His belief in the inherent goodness of men (apparently a characteristic of Transcendentalism) is one I find naively idealistic. Perhaps I am too cynical, but from what I see of human nature, we need at least a governing authority to keep us from doing harm to each other or trampling on each other’s rights—the extent and nature of which being, of course, up for debate. From Thoreau’s belief, however, sprang his view that man could eventually do without government.

The second aspect is his call for action against—or rather, separation from—the existing government as a form of protest against what he saw as the biggest injustices of his day: the Mexican-American War and slavery. Thoreau felt it wasn’t enough to merely say “I am opposed to slavery” but that the moral man must take action against it. He rejected change by way of established methods, that is the constitutional process, in part because of the slowness of this path, in part because of the extent of the injustice, and instead advocated for actively withholding a tax (in this case, the poll tax) as a means of protest. If enough men would participate in this protest, he felt that the government would have no choice but to change the laws.

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?  Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

It is this second aspect that seems the more applicable to our society. We may look at his essay and think that we are doing so much better now: we no longer have institutionalized slavery—but slavery, even in the US, still exists, most commonly in the sex trade, and there are many other social injustices still present across the world, from unfair labor practices to human rights violations. I’m sure at least some of the Occupy protestors are arguing about injustices inherent in our political-economic system, not to mention the protests themselves are acts of civil disobedience.

It is easy to read “Civil Disobedience” as advocating for anti-government action in all (any) cases of perceived injustice or violations of our conscience, but this, I think, is a misinterpretation of Thoreau’s essay, and is rather, what one of my professors referred to as taking an argument to its “illogical conclusion.” Thoreau is not speaking of the everyday injustice—and most certainly not mere dissatisfaction with government policies—but the more harmful, broader injustices. In his essay, Thoreau makes clear that he would not have protested the British tax on goods which precipitated the Boston Tea Party, but rather would have done without if he didn’t wish to pay the tax. In contrast, slavery impacted not just the conveniences of life but the entirety of the lives of those enslaved. It is not about individual, selfish dissatisfaction, but the broader social good.

If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it.

It should also be noted that Thoreau understood and accepted the consequences of breaking the laws, however unjust he perceived them. In fact, he embraced the idea of imprisonment: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Most striking to me in the essay is the idea of the need for action by everyone who sees injustice or wrong. Thoreau condemns nearly all of us, for I think almost all have seen an example, large or small, corporate or individual, of an injustice that we have not acted upon. It is an uncomfortable reminder, and one which I will be ruminating over for quite some time.

Some additional quotes:

“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.”

“…who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico…”

“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.”


4 thoughts on “Completed: “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”

    1. Shivers, huh? I must have quoted Thoreau a little too much! 😉

      I’ve read “Civil Disobedience” twice in the last two days, and I think could read it again. I don’t agree with everything Thoreau has to say, but he really provides a lot to think about.

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