Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book 119: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau.

"If... the machine of government... is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law."

When Jillian posted that she was doing a Transcendentalist event from November 15 to December 15, I had the perfect books to read. In addition to this title, I also read Walden (my thoughts will go up later this week). Thoreau is very closely linked to Transcendentalism, so it was perfect all around.

I have very limited experience with what Transcendentalism is, as well as the writers associated with it. While I know we covered it in one of my college English classes, I think we merely glossed over the movement before diving into Emerson. From what I have found online, I see Transcendentalism as the belief that man and nature are inherently good. It is the structures, government, and organized groups that results in the downfall of man. For many who believed in Transcendentalism, their goal was to bring the focus back to the individual-that a single person could make a large and significant change by looking within themselves and reflecting.

It sounds interesting from an outside perspective, and I have been curious about Thoreau from references to him from all over my literary explorations. He is referenced often, so I was curious to see what I made of him.

I purposefully decided to give his shorter work, Civil Disobedience, a try first. At only 40ish pages on my Nook, it was the perfect length for an afternoon read. I found myself marking many passages that interested me. Essentially, Civil Disobedience is about Thoreau's ideas of individual rights versus organized governments. In this essay, Thoreau explains that it is the right and duty of an individual to question their government and refuse to condone acts that they disagree with.

Since this was published in 1849, it is important that the context be taken into account. Besides slavery, there is also the issue of the Mexican-American War in the South. Tensions were high across the country with the Western territories either accepting or forbidding slavery. Thoreau's essay makes sense in the context in which it was written. But I think it is important to point out that he doesn't just point out the flaws in government, but in individuals. He mentions that there are many who don't see the importance in critiquing their government, or questioning its motives.

Probably one of his most controversial ideas is when he says that the best way to protest or contest the government is to stop paying your taxes. Perhaps it was easy to get away with that in 1849, but I highly doubt a lot of people get away with that for long nowadays. But, he does point out that if a large group stopped paying, it would have a far larger impact than an individual.

Overall, I find Thoreau's ideas to be...interesting. I mean, I can see his point. I like the amount of passion he puts into his argument, and since this was a short piece, it seemed concise and relevant. What I found applicable to my own life is that as an individual, I have the choice to use my voice in the way I wish to. And if I find issue with the way my government runs, I should take advantage of my rights and voice that.

I do want to note that I took a lot of what Thoreau said with a grain of salt. He comes across as very....arrogant in this title. And while I could set it aside because I was interested in some of his ideas, at times I rolled my eyes. It read as very aggressive and condescending. I could be reading his tone all wrong, but at times his attitude seemed very over the top.

Probably the larger issue is that, well, how is this all even possible? How does Thoreau expect everyone to carry his ideas out? It doesn't seem feasible to me, at least in this day and age. Perhaps, in the era in which this was written, the issue of slavery could bind people together, but how would this all work today? I don't think even Thoreau would have an answer to that.

In any case, it was a great, short, introduction to the movement and beliefs of this group of individuals. And while it is not my favorite piece of writing ever, it is interesting to get this perspective of the early American spirit. I am curious to see what a longer piece will have in store.

"It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the 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."

Please visit this post to see more info on Transcendentalist Month and posts by other bloggers.


  1. I agree that it's a really good introduction to the thought of the time. Slow going, but worth it, from what I remember.

  2. Great review. Emerson and Thoreau are my favorite of the Transcendentalists, and while I respect Thoreau for his ideas and civil disobedience, it's his nature writing that I truly love.

  3. I read this essay several months ago and had no idea what Transcendentalism was, when I read it. I didn't really notice Thoreau's arrogance (evidence of the company I keep - har!) I didn't really read arrogance, so much, as anger.

    I did notice the difficulty one might have in implementing his ideas. I compared it to sitting in traffic: no one wants to do it, but can you imagine what would happen if nobody did?

    Still, I have to agree with some of his ideas, even if they seem so ideal they'd be impossible to implement. It must have been awful, being expected to support a governemtn that would legalize slavery and support usurping territories of land due to self-ordained "manifest destiny."

    I love this quote:

    "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."

    I feel like Thoreau gave us a framework of something -- that inspired Gandhi and the American Civil Rights movement. That's why I love this essay. It may not be complete in and of itself, but it's a stand, it's revolutionary, and it inspired incredible change.

  4. I would say that Thoreau didn't actually get away with not paying his taxes, as he spent a night in prison and someone paid them for him! Come to think of it, with all the paperwork and numbers of US residents, it's probably easier to not pay your taxes today, at least in the government noticing right away stand point....I don't think I'd be a very good protest tactic, though!

    I read this twice this week, and the 2nd time I noticed the arrogant tone you mention, but as I think about it, I'm not sure it's arrogance, so much as the force he's trying to put behind his ideas. He legitimately believed in his arguments, and lived them, and this belief would have made him feel more urgency in making his points, thus the sense of arrogance. I think.

    Regarding the relevance to today, I think Thoreau's ideas are actually very relevant; they just have transferred from not paying taxes to non-violent protests. (I don't want to take up too much space here, but I wrote about my thoughts on this on my post on the essay.)

  5. I reviewed this essay on my blog as well.

    I had similar thoughts. I think Thoreau's tone puts me off and makes me not want to like him.

  6. It's been decades since I read this one. I remember it really lit me up in college, but I wonder if it would do the same now.

  7. I read this forever ago and don't remember much but I just reread WALDEN and oh my I hated that man's arrogance! I remember really enjoying reading Ghandi's autobiography, so if nothing else, I appreciate Thoreau's essay for prompting Ghandi to action.

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