Civil Disobedience

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Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"
Major Themes
Civil Government and Higher Law. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau's basic premise is that a higher law than civil law demands the obedience of the individual. Human law and government are subordinate. In cases where the two are at odds with one another, the individual must follow his conscience and, if necessary, disregard human law.

Thoreau prepared his lecture and essay on resistance to civil government in response to a specific event—the Mexican War, which was declared in May of 1846, and which was expected to result in the expansion of slave territory. He was not particularly inclined to devote much thought to political theory and reform. He writes in Civil Disobedience: . . . the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free [free in his thinking], fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him. The search for understanding of universal laws forms the proper use of a man's time, energy, and intellect. Thoreau writes dismissively of conscious reform: "I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad." However, circumstances make it impossible to live life as usual without damage to morality and conscience: It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. Thoreau's antislavery and reform pieces do not diminish the significance of Transcendental exploration and discovery. They are specific reactions to what he sees as extreme events. They form an acknowledgment that inner exploration loses meaning if matters of conscience are overlooked in the process. Government enforces civil law by physical means, which are ineffectual in relation to moral issues. When the man of conscience is at variance with the state, he is punished by physical confinement, a type of force, which accomplishes nothing. Thoreau comments, "They only can force me who obey a higher law than I do. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way or that by masses of men." The laws that apply in matters of conscience belong to a different sphere than those (like the building of roads) that can be decided by majority rule. In fact, government oversteps its authority when it becomes involved in moral issues.

Government and the Individual. Thoreau writes of government as "an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone." It exists by consent of the governed to ensure the individual freedom that allows the pursuit of deep living and high thinking. Although it is liable to abuse, Thoreau nevertheless concedes that it is necessary: "But it is not the less necessary for [its shortcomings]; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other . . . to satisfy that idea of government which they have." Powerful statement though it is, Civil Disobedience is written in a relatively measured tone. Despite popular misinterpretation, Thoreau does not advocate the dissolution of government in it. He asks "not at once for no government, but at once a better government."

However, Thoreau does call for a government limited to decide those issues that it is fitted to consider: . . . a government in which the majority rule in all cases...
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