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The Power of the Individual

By infostalker Nov 28, 2007 1394 Words
The Power of the Individual

It is historically acknowledged that an individual with great character and profound principle can and will alter the course or collective consciousness of a community, society or government. So-called "Civilization" is fundamentally, the result of families forming communities, which develops ‘societies', that establishes laws/rules that are to be obeyed, thereby forming a ‘Government' to maintain Civilization. This is a code of behavior and cooperation that men and women ‘must' mutually agree upon to establish and maintain the functionality, peace and prosperity of said Community. It is characterized by common interest and may possess a distinctive culture and institutions. However, occasionally the Governing System may become abusive or support corrupt or destructive inhumane institutions. When this happens, an "individual" of that Community may arise who rebels against the dysfunctional system, for the greater good and ultimate reformation and survival of the people that live within that "Government".

The life and influence of Henry David Thoreau is an archetypical example of the ‘power' of honor, integrity and love of Community. Mr. Thoreau was born on July 12th 1817 (departed May 6th 1862), he was an American author, a naturalist, public speaker, tax resister, inventor, philosopher, war resister and life long abolitionist, who is best known for his essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience". This writing has profoundly affected the course of modern history.

On July 25th 1846 Mr. Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against what he considered the unjust Mexican-American War 1846 - 1848, (of which the states now known as California, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado & Arizona were gained…) During this ‘war' then a Second Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant. expressed no reservations about serving, yet later called the war "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory", (Smith, Jean Edward, Grant, Simon and Shuster, 2001, pp. 87-88) [1]; this duplicity of mind was not to be ‘tolerated' in the philosophy of Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau's, fundamental position was in his own words:

"It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even to 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. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico--see if I would go"; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute." … "All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable"… "In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army." (Henry David Thoreau, 1849, original title: Resistance to Civil Government) [2]

Mr. Thoreau lived from1817 to 1862, yet his passionate love of life and desire for justice reached across space and time and influenced many great men and women; the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, President John F. Kennedy, Civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Russian author Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, E. B. White, Frank Lloyd Wright, feminist Emma Goldman and many, many others.

In fact, Mohandas K. Gandhi, told the American reporter Webb Miller,

" Thoreau's ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau's essay 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,' written about 80 years ago." (Miller, Webb. I Found No Peace. Garden City, 1938. 238-239) [3]

Gandhi further clarified his position: "Civil Disobedience is civil breach of unmoral statutory enactments. The expression was, so far as I am aware, coined by Thoreau to signify his own resistance to the laws of a slave state. ... But Thoreau was not perhaps an out and out champion of non-violence. Probably, also, Thoreau limited his breach of statutory laws to the revenue law, i.e. payment of taxes. Whereas the term Civil Disobedience as practiced in 1919 covered a breach of any statutory and unmoral law. It signified the resister's outlawry in a civil, i.e., non-violent manner . . . Until I read that essay I never found a suitable English translation for my Indian word, Satyagraha". (Mohandas K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance, pp. 3-4 and 14) [4]

Also, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1944, while attending Morehouse College, wrote in his autobiography that it was:

"Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.

I became convinced that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice" (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. Chapter 2 ) [5]

Henry David Thoreau's primary premise is we need not and must not cooperate in any form or fashion with a corrupt governing body; that indeed it is our responsibility to resist said institution for the betterment of ‘Civilization" as a whole. The Essay "On Civil Disobedience" and it's ‘timeless' influence demonstrates the seminal power of an ‘individual' when standing upon ethically/morally correct ideas and principles, to effectively alter the course of human affairs. In the End, ‘Right' does conquer might.

1. Smith, Jean Edward, Grant, Simon and Shuster, 2001, pp. 87-88 2. Thoreau, Henry David "Resistance to Civil Government" 1849 3. Mahatma Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance, pp. 3-4 and 14
4. Miller, Webb. I Found No Peace. Garden City, 1938. 238-239 5. King Jr., M.L. Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. chapter two

Outside Sources:
Hendrix, George. "The Influence of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" on Gandhi's Satyagraha". The New England Quarterly. 1956.

Meyerson, Joel et al. The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau. Cambridge University Press. 1995.

Rosenwald, Lawrence. "The Theory, Practice & Influence of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience". William Cain, ed. A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. "Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions". Cornhill Magazine. June 1880

Dassow Walls, Laura. Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and 19th Century Science. University of Wisconsin Press. 1995.

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