Henry David Thoreau "Civil Disobedience"

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  • Topic: Henry David Thoreau, Civil disobedience, Law
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  • Published : May 15, 2011
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Henry David Thoreau
In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau focuses his ideas around the central theme, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” He defines man as a person who listens and acts to his conscience and states that if man obeys laws opposing his conscience, such as laws created by legislators, then he is no better than an animal.

Thoreau begins by arguing that government derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because they hold the most legitimate viewpoint or because their ideas follow their conscience. He says, “ Why has every man a conscience, then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward." Thoreau says, “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?” He then expressed that most people would chose the second option; however, this option is not correct because the government does not encourage reform through the legal process. He states that although man has no responsibility to rid the world of evil, man must "wash his hands" of injustice and not be associated with something that is wrong. Thoreau concludes by arguing that one should want to conform to the law; however, the law must be just and derived from our conscience. Henry David Thoreau’s ideas are valid and evident in the constitutional principles of popular sovereignty and limited government. Also, influential leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King have followed Thoreau’s ideas of creating just laws that follow the laws of human conscience. The success of these men, along with our current democratic government, reflects the accuracy and validity of Thoreau’s ideas.
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