Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, February 25, 2013

THOREAU: Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau begins his essay on government with this quote: I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least…" This sounds like a typical American view of government. Many Americans feel that way. But then Thoreau goes on to say: also I believe, "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… This is NOT a typical American view of government; in fact, this view cuts against the grain of almost every political philosopher we read in the Great Books. John Locke, for example, in his book Of Civil Government had this to say about a form of government where the majority rules: …when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community… it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community… So Locke therefore accepts the idea that we should go along for the common good of the political community, even with governmental policies or laws we don’t necessarily agree with. Otherwise the whole thing falls apart.

Thoreau won’t accept that form of reasoning. Instead, he asks: Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? This is a good question. But it’s better as a philosophical or theoretical question than a practical political one. Sure, in an ideal world private consciences would decide questions of right and wrong. But as a practical matter how would this idea work? If I feel that some particular law is wrong but the majority says otherwise, what am I supposed to do? Rousseau would tend agree with Locke: obey the law. But he would think this way for an entirely different reason. Rousseau would go along with the majority because that is the General Will. The General Will is what holds society together. If I personally believe something different from the General Will then obviously my private judgment is mistaken. But Thoreau says clearly: follow your conscience, disobey the law. It’s better to stand up for what you believe in from your own conscience, even if you go to prison for it.

This sounds noble. However, in Crito Socrates says almost the exact opposite. Obey the law, even if you disagree with it. Here’s why: Do you think that a city can any longer exist and not be overturned, in which legal judgments once rendered are without force, but may be rendered unauthoritative by private citizens and so corrupted? …The “just” lies here: never to give way, never to desert, never to leave your post, but in war or court of law or any other place, to do what City and Country command. Either that, or persuade it what is just. Thoreau is a private citizen. Socrates thinks it’s good that Thoreau is pursuing the meaning of Justice. But he doesn’t think it’s good when Thoreau recommends disobeying the law. Thoreau might argue that Socrates was, in fact, following his own conscience when he chose to remain in prison unjustly rather than escape from prison like a common criminal.

So where does this all lead? It seems to just lead us toward more confusion. But this may be a kind of wisdom in itself: to know that we’re confused. Socrates would say: to know that we don’t know. But that doesn’t mean we should remain paralyzed by indecision. Thoreau says: to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. That may not be the definitive answer but it sounds like a good old-fashioned American attitude.


Blogger SMJ said...

The dictum "Let conscience be your guide" is a fine principle to follow if you are the sole occupant of your own country. But whenever two people disagree, there is bound to be trouble if both follow their own conscience. This is the nature of conflict. (Strangely, this is true even if your conscience tells you to love your neighbor and do unto others as you would have done unto you ) In the absence of law, when people disagree and are unable to find an acceptable compromise, violence generally settles the dispute. This is a fact of human psychology well understood since the time of Hammurabi. Down through the ages, many rulers from the Athenian statesman Solon to the Roman emporor Justinian, realized that law was the only antidote to chaos. Hobbes believed that man would never find peace unless he was willing to relinquish some of his freedom in exchange for the security of his life and property. As Locke, Montesquieu, and the Founding Fathers all understood, this is the basic reason why governments are instituted. So Thoreau may well follow his own conscience rather than obey the laws of his country, but if many people adopted the same attitude, then sheer anarchy would prevail.

On the other hand, if no one ever followed their conscience, either through fear or moral indifference, and we always obeyed the authority in power over us, then no dictator would ever get overthrown, and militaristic regimes would have nothing to fear from the people they oppress. And so if a lawful community and personal serenity are ever to be obtained, then a balance must be found between our natural desire for absolute freedom and our political need for order and justice. Although democracies in their social evolution are often beset with internal strife, financial difficulty and lack of political wisdom, at this time in history they still represent the best opportunity for average people to rise above poverty and achieve a better life for themselves than their ancestors could ever enjoy. But this balance is fragile and can only be maintained by a thoughtful preservation of constitutional government and civic virtue. This means that if someone like Thoreau chooses to go to prison rather than to pay his taxes, fine. The country can survive this level of civil disobedience. But if 10,000 people decide to withhold their taxes because they don't like a specific government policy, then we have a crisis. The promise extended by our constitutional republic is not that you will always be happy or be in the majority or get your way on matters of public policy. The promise is that you have the right to vote for the people you choose to represent you, and the right to be heard. You also have other enumerated rights which can never be taken from you. But the right to withhold your taxes is not among these rights. You do that at your own peril.

2/27/2013 1:44 PM  

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