Prof Subarno Chatterji
19 February 2013
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF “ON THE DUTY OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE” “On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience” 1849, a civil libertarian classic essay by American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau is one of the most influential political tracts ever written. The thesis explores an individual’s relationship to the state and stems in part from Thoreau’s protestations against slavery and the Mexican–American War. His primary thrust is that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, but on the contrary are duty bound to avoid such acquiescence and compliance that enables the government to make them the agents of injustice. Underscoring the magnitude and significance of rejecting archetypal conventions of politics that demand conformist mindsets, Thoreau expresses a strong disapproval of the intrusive role of the government and believes that the state would operate much more expeditiously without the inexorably gratuitous intervention of the government. Yet Thoreau recognizes that the urgent need is not for a complete absence of government (which he believes will eventually occur when society is willing to accept individual power as more significant than governmental rule) but for a more efficacious government that does not attempt to dictate individual morality. Thoreau concurs that the reason majorities usually rule is because they are the strongest physically, and their policies are based upon expediency. Thoreau advocates appealing to the innate sense of righteousness and moral conscience in all individuals, rather than the rhetoric of a self-serving entity such as the government. He explicates succinctly, "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 reiterates his point by indicating...
Cited: 1. Zinn, Howard. The Zinn Reader : Writings on Disobedience and Democracy
2. Goodwin, James. “Thoreau and John Brown: Transcendental Politics”, Esquire Magazine,1979
3. Thoreau, Henry. “On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience”,1849
4. King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, W.W. Norton & Company 2003
[ 2 ]. Perhaps the best description of Thoreau’s ideal relationship occurs in his description of “a really free and enlightened State” that recognizes “the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived.”
[ 3 ]. According to Howard, author of The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Civil disobedience is “the deliberate violation of a law for a social purpose. To violate a law for individual gain, for a private purpose, is an ordinary criminal act; it is not civil disobedience"
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