THOREAU: Civil Disobedience
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.