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Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (Dover Thrift Editions) Paperback – May 20, 1993

ISBN-13: 978-0486275635 ISBN-10: 0486275639 Edition: Reprint

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Henry David Thoreau (born David Henry Thoreau; July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American author, poet, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, philosopher, and leading transcendentalist. He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay, Civil Disobedience, an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state. Thoreau's books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry total over 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore; while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and "Yankee" love of practical detail. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time imploring one to abandon waste and illusion in order to discover life's true essential needs. He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience influenced the political thoughts and actions of such later figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Thoreau is sometimes cited as an individualist anarchist. Though Civil Disobedience seems to call for improving rather than abolishing government – "I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government" – the direction of this improvement aims at anarchism: "'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." Richard Drinnon partly blames Thoreau for the ambiguity, noting that Thoreau's "sly satire, his liking for wide margins for his writing, and his fondness for paradox provided ammunition for widely divergent interpretations of 'Civil Disobedience.'" He further points out that although Thoreau writes that he only wants "at once" a better government, that does not rule out the possibility that a little later he might favor no government. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Product Details

  • Series: Dover Thrift Editions
  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Dover Publications; Reprint edition (May 20, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0486275639
  • ISBN-13: 978-0486275635
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.3 x 0.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,337 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

It's an interesting worth reading book about ethics.
Thiago Model Pereira Bertho
I devoured this book in a few hours, stopping every few minutes to think and write about what I was reading, and then forced it on my boyfriend the next day.
Amazon Customer
This is an amazing piece of writing because it is probably more relevant today than in Thoreau's time.
Jeffrey Leach

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

126 of 129 people found the following review helpful By Ragnarok Books on November 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
Civil Disobedience is one of the most importance works of philosophy ever written. Like all great works of philosophy, it is as relevant today as it has ever been, as it transcends space and time. Don't let the abolitionist nature mislead you: this book is not merely about abolition and slavery. Rather, it is about Man Against the State, individuality, and Thoreau's philosophy of how one man can stand up to government and society, driven by his own convictions of right and wrong, as summarized by the timeless quote "Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already".

Thoreau's main point is that the best - and many times, the only - method for fighting injustice is through passive disobedience. By refusing to cooperate with the machinery of injustice, the individual can become the friction that stops the machine. Active resistance is bound for failure, as the machine (the State, society, etc.) is too formidable for the individual to fight. But, by refusing to cooperate, justice can be achieved and injustice toppled.

If you are looking for a marvelous primer on individuality and the fight for justice, start with this book.
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50 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Medusa on February 27, 2009
Format: Paperback
In "Civil Disobedience" Thoreau presents political theories in which he dissects democracy and the interaction between citizens and their government.
Understandably, Thoreau was deeply concerned about injustices he witnessed during his life, such as enslavement of one sixth of the population and the invasion of Mexico by the United States.
Thoreau does not oppose the institution of government; he believes that when a government becomes "abused and perverted", it ceases to represent the will of the people. When a government makes decisions that promulgate harm and injustice, it is the duty of its citizens to rebel and break those chains of injustices.

Arguably, the strongest idea Thoreau presents, is the notion of individualism. Thoreau encourages skepticism of the government and rejects blind loyalty to it. Thoreau perceives citizens, who give blind loyalty to their government's decisions without questioning them, as participants in every injustice committed by that government. Whether this point of view is correct or not, it is worth debating, especially in view of the horrific injustices that are extant in today's world and the way the masses so easily accept them without considering the negative impact on others.
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69 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Leach HALL OF FAME on October 31, 2002
Format: Paperback
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American philosopher, poet, and naturalist who moved in the same intellectual and social circles as Ralph Waldo Emerson. This Dover Thrift edition contains several important Thoreau tracts: Civil Disobedience, Slavery in Massachusetts, A Plea for Captain John Brown, Walking, and Life Without Principle. Thoreau also wrote the famous "Walden," and several other influential pieces shaped by his sense of environment and his unwavering belief in the power of the individual.
In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau discusses the role of the individual in society and government. Starting off with his famous statement, "That government is best which governs not at all," Thoreau waxes philosophic about the role of the United States government in the Mexican War and slavery. Thoreau argues that majorities in a democracy decide what the laws are because they are the strongest element in society. According to Thoreau, what is law is not necessarily right, and just because the majority decides an issue doesn't automatically make that issue palatable to a man's conscience. Individuals can, and sometimes should, oppose the majority, and they can be right even if they are in the minority. Ultimately, if laws are not reliable beacons of truth, one should appeal to one's conscience to decide what is right and wrong. However, merely deciding something is wrong is not enough if that decision is not followed by concrete action. Thoreau criticizes the voting process in this context, since anybody can vote for something. Without action following a decision, voting or supporting something is useless. This essay also contains Thoreau's account of his stay in jail for failure to pay a tax.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Bagels on December 31, 2009
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a thoroughly American view on political theory given the emphasis on the individual coupled with the call for civil disobedience. Definitely not for the faint hearted, go into this with a grasp of the events of the day and a willingness to read the entire essay at least twice to fully appreciate Thoreau's points.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 22, 1998
Format: Paperback
If ever a document came close to matching the Gospels in detailing a way to live morally, it is Civil Disobedience. In a brief, clear, and concise essay Thoreau proffers a challenge to all men, "not to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right." In all my life, no words so simply and yet so profoundly has affected my view of our country and our world.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Mark Ledbetter on May 4, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition
Civil Disobedience sits quietly in the national psyche as one of the founding documents of modern American liberalism. It's well known to liberals but not well read. It is worth the reading and would likely surprise liberals and non-liberals alike - as it did me. Sure, it's anti-war and anti-slavery, but it's also a lot more. The confused hodgepodge of modern isms that dominate current political thought could use the purity, consistency, and clarity that were second nature to thinkers nearer the American Revolution.

Consider, for example, Thoreau's political philosophy:

"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."

Or his take on government aid to societal improvement:

"Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of the 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."

Thoreau on economic policy:

"Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India-rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way."

1848 was also the year of another seminal work, the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. Where Thoreau looked back to the 18th century, Marx looked forward to the 20th . Where Thoreau recognized that the power of the state will not easily be compartmentalized, that power to do one thing will infect all things, Marx looked to the state to solve every problem.
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