The Great Dangers of Civil Disobedience

Topics: Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil disobedience Pages: 5 (1763 words) Published: June 9, 2011
Jack Sparrow
Mr Reffot

Intellectual revolutions can often have a deep impact on society. Henry David Thoreau was looking to make such an impact by publicizing his transcendentalist beliefs and going a step further with his concept of civil disobedience. Lewis H. Van Dusen's essay entitled Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy was published in 1969 and opposes greatly the beliefs of Thoreau. Van Dusen essentially deems civil disobedience as the assumption that you can be above the law should it not tailor to your beliefs. Van Dusen explicitly refutes the concepts of Thoreau suggesting that they, as the title of his work suggests, destroy democracy. Van Dusen feels that when man disobeys the law and separates from the democratic society he feels has failed, he simply pushes democracy further towards failure. While the ends laid out by Thoreau in Walden and Civil Disobedience, and Martin Luther King Jr. in Letter From Birmingham Jail, may be completely valid, the mean by which they chose to try and attain them, civil disobedience, is acted upon without true understanding of its detrimental impact to democratic society according to Lewis H. Van Dusen. While Henry David Thoreau seems to feel he is presenting the ideals for how one should live their life and how government should function, in reality he is conveying an impractical message with detrimental effects. In his work Walden, Thoreau outlines the basic ideas of transcendentalism and keeps an account of his time spent living in the Walden woods. It is in the Walden woods that Thoreau concludes, "If we do not…forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads?...who will want railroads?"(1). Thoreau is conveying the message that within American society man has becomes so consumed with his own life that he has forgotten about striving towards progression. Thoreau feels that if every man spends his time concerned with minor detail, and the material things society has defined as symbols of success, man will not advance, he will simply live a cyclical life during which nothing of meaning occurs. While Thoreau presents his ideas with great confidence he soon finds that man inherently can't abandon all routine and ritual, thus making his concept of transcendence impractical. More important than the impracticality of transcendentalism is Thoreau's interpretation of what he is presenting. Thoreau feels he is providing the example of a man who transcends societal constraints and living his life to the fullest. In reality Thoreau is very much avoiding society entirely by taking up this supposed transcendent lifestyle. Lewis H. Van Dusen presents the idea that civil disobedience is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy. In going to the woods Thoreau doesn't "build railroads" but instead leaves them to be built by the world which he has lost faith in. By leaving the building of railroads, essentially the directing of society, to a society he feels is very limited due to deeply ingrained routine and ritual, Thoreau removes the influence he may have potentially had. This removal of influence doesn't lead the railroads to taking the shape Thoreau wished for but instead lets a society he already doesn’t have faith in create them in any way they please. When man elects to transcend, he really avoids society and does not build railroads but instead runs from them. Henry David Thoreau presents his ideas for achieving better government in his work Civil Disobedience. As the title of his work suggests, Thoreau felt civil disobedience, a form of non-violent protest of laws, was the key to ensuring a government doesn't over extend its control over its people. In Civil Disobedience Thoreau states, "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right"(1). Thoreau seems to suggest that governmental laws constrain people. He feels as if man can't truly live...

Cited: King Jr., Martin L. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]." African Studies Center- University of Pennsylvania. Ed. Ali B. Ali-Dinar. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. <http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html>.
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