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Monday, November 09, 2009

THOREAU: Civil Disobedience

Americans are a rowdy bunch. They don’t like to be told what to do. So it’s not too surprising that an American would make a statement like this one: I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; but... "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. That’s Mr. Henry David Thoreau speaking. Is Thoreau a prototype American or just a flaky eccentric? It depends on who you ask. Americans have been debating the proper role of government since the founding of the Republic. Some think government’s too big and tries to do too much; others think it’s too small and doesn’t do enough. This debate goes on today and every couple of years we have elections to decide who’s going to run things. It’s just practical politics. Things have to get done. Debating the virtues of government is a lofty goal but in the meantime potholes have to be filled.

Thoreau is more interested in the higher questions. He is above all an individualist and considers himself to be a majority of one. He muses that There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. This would be discouraging to the Founding Fathers. The whole American system of government, of laws, of checks and balances, is crucially dependent on the ability of ordinary people to govern themselves. Thoreau intends to govern himself but also adds that I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society. If ordinary citizens like Thoreau aren’t responsible for society, then who is? He’s objecting to two major things he thought were wrong with American society: the Mexican War and slavery. These are powerful objections. Thoreau is posing the question: so what are we going to do about it? He lists three options. 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? We can obey laws even though we think they’re unjust. This is what Socrates did in Crito. Many people thought he was unjustly tried and convicted and felt he would be justified in escaping from prison. Socrates disagreed. He said he would remain loyal to the laws even if he was personally treated unjustly. The second option is to amend the laws. This is what the United States Constitution is for. If something’s wrong there are legal means to change it and make it right. The third option is to break the law. This is what Thoreau calls “civil disobedience.”

Civil disobedience didn’t work in Thoreau’s case. The Mexican War and slavery both went on despite his objections. He spent some time in prison rather than cooperate with policies he thought were wrong. Thoreau could do that because he was a bachelor. His advice is to live light: You must hire or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs. But most people don’t want to just “squat somewhere.” They want homes and families and a place to set down roots. To live always tucked up and ready for a start is for nomads. Americans move around a lot but no one would mistake them for a nomadic people. Nor do they want to sever the ties that bind them into communities. Thoreau is idealistic and believes his idealism is vitally necessary for living communities: It is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump. The big question is whether civil disobedience can only succeed within the framework of a lenient liberal democracy. Thoreau says, Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any society which I have not joined. Lenin says, You may not be interested in war; but war is interested in you.


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