on November 25, 2004
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.
on February 27, 2009
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.
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.
"A Plea for Captain John Brown" probably caused considerable controversy at the time of its writing. John Brown was the fire-breathing abolitionist who made the famous raid on Harper's Ferry in the 1850's. Brown eventually went to the gallows for his crimes while American citizens debated his actions. Most thought Brown a wacko, an extremely dangerous radical who threatened the social fabric of the country. Thoreau defends Brown in an essay both eloquent and naïve. This is really a panegyric to an unrealistic man who used questionable methods to attain his goal. When Thoreau refers to Brown as "an angel of light," it is necessary for the reader to remember Brown killed many people in cold blood.
"Walking" is the centerpiece of this collection of essays. Thoreau starts his discussion by musing on the wonders of walking in the country (sans terre, or "sauntering"), and ends up discussing nature, the movements of mankind, work, and freedom. Thoreau feels we gave up something very special when we locked ourselves in our shops and devoted our days to long hours of work. Get out! Enjoy life! Admire the trees, a sunset, and the birds! Don't give up your freedom for a wage and dull toil! These are the things Thoreau urges upon us in this essay, and he certainly has a point. This is an amazing piece of writing because it is probably more relevant today than in Thoreau's time. At least in those days vast expanses of nature still existed. Today, we must climb into our little boxes with wheels and drive for miles before we see a small forest or some mountains, while elbowing our way through all the others doing the same thing. "Walking" is a beautiful testament to a bucolic life.
I find Thoreau's writings vastly superior to anything Emerson wrote. Thoreau is more accessible, cares more about concrete issues, and seems like a nicer person. Thoreau comes across as the type of guy you could shoot the breeze with for an hour or so, whereas Emerson seems aloof and esoteric. Thoreau as a person is from an era long dead, but his words continue to resonate deeply in our souls. I think I'll go take a walk.
on May 4, 2011
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. Where Thoreau knew that state power does not peacefully or voluntarily diminish, Marx justified his appeal for total state power - the dictatorship of the proletariat - with the naïve expectation that government would dissolve away into a stateless utopian paradise.
Thoreau, I expect, would have no trouble explaining why Americans who protest wars but advocate government intervention in the economy, get wars; or why Americans who advocate nonintervention in the economy, small taxes, and small government but support a worldwide military presence, get controlled markets, high taxes, and large government.
It has been pointed out that the structural deficits which have finally brought U.S. governmental finances to the point of crisis, got their start in the Vietnam War and Great Society. Us moderns tend to blame/praise conservatives for the wars and liberals for the social programs, but Thoreau knew wars and social programs are joined at the hip. We can have both or neither but not one or the other. Conservatives and liberals share equal responsibility. Civil Disobedience points to the solution.
on December 31, 2009
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.
on March 13, 2014
"Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire."
That is the sentence missing from the 45th (final) paragraph of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." Here I am, reading aloud in class, when suddenly I am interrupted with the report that I skipped a sentence in the text. No, I did not skip a sentence ... it simply wasn't there.
When I buy a book, for a dollar or fifty dollars, I want the entire book. I will be requesting a refund, and deleting this version from my Kindle, before more omissions are brought to light at my expense.
on December 22, 1998
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.
It seems to be a great truth that the most profound points are made in very short works. This is a very influential work by Thoreau that is the foundation of civil disobedience. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were greatly influenced by this work.
A famous quote from this work is "That government is best which governs least". Today's bloated government would literally drive him mad. I've also read "Walden" and it expresses similar sentiments.
This short pamphlet should be read by everyone. I would personally love to see less government and agree that civil disobedience is a very good way to encourage change. It sounds like politicians back then were similar to what we have today. Some things never change.
These kindle freebies have given me a great and easy way to review several items I have wanted to read for years.
on August 29, 2003
Henry David Thoreau did not just think, he acted. In order to see which luxuries of life he could live without, he lived in a secluded area for two years near Walden pond. Instead of paying a poll tax he thought unjust, he spent a night in jail. Thoreau backed his thoughts with action, and this gives validity to many of his writings.
Perhaps no work of Thoreau has been more influential than his essay "Civil Disobedience." Many world leaders, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., drew inspiration from this classic treatise on passive, nonviolent resistance. Simply put, Thoreau did not believe in allowing government to take more of his personal liberty than he, Thoreau, was willing to surrender. He also believed that, as citizens under a government, people have the moral obligation to break any law they think unjust (provided it does not injure another). This is the basic premise of "Civil Disobedience," that "I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."
All of the essays in this collection are important, but none has the tremendous power of "Civil Disobedience," one of the classics in American thought.
on September 21, 2002
It is unfortunate that Henry David Thoreau experience little renown in his lifetime, but I am glad to see that he is now recognized as one of the leading lights of American political philosophy, as he well deserves to be. His writings, which have influenced everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Ghandi to Robert A. Heinlein to Don Henley, are the very essence of the strength of invididualism and freedom of the spirit. Thoreau was vehemently against slavery (his two essays on the subject in this volume are so passionate that they may move you to tears), and the title essay is, of course, a classic in itself. Distilling the virtues of conscience over the mere created laws of man, Thoreau makes a very good case here for self-government, and I am surprised he is not more frequently cited by the Liberterian movement. His remembrance of when he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax - in which he says he felt that the prison walls did not confine him, that he felt more free than ever inside them, that he came to feel sorry for the state and even pity them for resorting to such measures, and that he, in fact, felt like he was the only citizen who did pay his poll tax - I find truly inspiring. They just don't make men like that, anymore. While many of us may find it hard to be so idealistic about things, we are reminded, in reading this, of a time when people could - and did - truly die for what they believed in. One wonders what Thoreau would think of present-day America. Life Without Principle is another eye-opening piece, in which Thoreau condemns the American social system and job ladder. Walking is a classic that is still cited by conservationists everywhere, and that helped in a big way in the U.S.'s national parks movement. Seminal American writing in the tradition of Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other great American thinkers.