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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.
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.
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I knew that Henry David Thoreau was a tax evader, however I did not realize how radical he was until I read his book on the duty of civil disobedience. Read morePublished 6 days ago by Bernie
Good copy that is easy to read. An introduction would have been nice which is why it is a 4/5. The historical context is important with these documents.Published 20 days ago by Clarissa Hoff
I wish the book was longer, but, even as short as it was, I enjoyed it. Good for all students.Published 21 days ago by Olubunmi Balogun