Civil Disobedience

Topics: Civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson Pages: 7 (2768 words) Published: May 7, 2014
Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau was little known outside his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, where he was much admired for his passionate stance on social issues, his deep knowledge of natural history, and the originality of his lectures, essays, and books. He was also maligned as a crank and malingerer who never held a steady job and whose philosophy was but a pale imitation of Ralph Waldo Emerson 's. Thoreau was a man of ideas who struggled all his life to create a path that would refuse compromise. “All his activities--teaching, pencil-making, surveying, and, above all, writing--were grounded in his faith in a higher moral law that could be discovered and practiced through the unremitting discipline of living ever in the present moment” (Walls 1). For Thoreau this belief meant living "in each season as it passes," fully attuned to the rhythms and phenomena of nature. His art, as it matured, became a way both to keep his own perceptions alert to all the potential of the present and to incite his readers to discover their own mode of attentiveness to life beyond the "mud and slush of opinion." “In the century after his death, the admiration of his few followers snowballed, and he is now recognized as one of the greatest writers in the United States” (Walls 1). After presentation at the Concord Lyceum on January 26, 1848, Thoreau's essay "Resistance to Civil Government" was published the following spring in Aesthetic Papers, edited by Elizabeth Peabody. “The title "Civil Disobedience" was first attached to a reprint of essay after Thoreau's death, and although it is the more widely known title, it does not reflect the author's intention” ( That Thoreau's text is an explicit refutation of William Paley's essay on "The Duty of Submission to Civil Government" is emphasized not only by the original title but by the author's citation of Paley in the text. "Resistance to Civil Government" is a highly polemical piece, aiming to move the reader to more than mere aesthetic or moral appreciation: it contains a clear call to action in the service of principle, and indeed argues that mere conviction without action is worthless. The contemporary issues that engaged Thoreau's moral outrage at the time were American military aggression in Mexico and the legality of slavery in the United States. In seeking a way for the conscientious individual to deal with such issues, Thoreau offers a meditation on timeless and absolute principles that, he feels, should guide the moral person. The substance of the author's argument is that each person has a duty to follow conscience rather than law when the two are in conflict, and further has a duty to oppose unjust laws by taking action against them. This book, or rather pamphlet, thus had its decisive place in the greatest revolution of modern times, and in the mind of one of the half-dozen supreme historical figures of all times. Gandhi extended and deepened Thoreau's gospel into the potent weapon of soul-force, which achieved Indian independence. He made it not the lone protest against tyranny of the single individual, but the massed revolt of disciplined multitudes of men. But the seed was of Thoreau's planting (Holmes 1). The argument is developed through a set of assertions describing the individual's relation to the state in terms of mutually exclusive oppositions. One of the main sets of contrasting terms is principle or conscience opposed to expediency. “Thoreau repeatedly characterizes government as operating according to expediency, whereas the individual citizen is capable of acting according to a higher principle, that of morality or conscience” (Cain 14). In advising that the individual has not merely the right but the duty to resist unjust laws, Thoreau postulates a higher, spiritual, law that supersedes civil or constitutional law. “Conscience instructs the individual in this higher law, according to Thoreau,...
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