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on thoreau’s civil disobedience

I had meant to read up on Thoreau for quite some time now, and took the opportunity yesterday to read the Project Gutenberg text of Civil Disobedience on my Kindle. I found the essay well-conceived, enjoyable, and dripping with an arrogance that only comes with a supreme confidence in one’s intellect, moral standing, and social status. That said, while I was impressed by Thoreau’s well-articulated respect for the individual, his moral outrage at the crimes of slavery and the Mexican War, and his criticism of those who recognized the injustice and paid but lip service, I found his Rousseau-like worldview naive and his writing self-indulgent. Below I have written up some of my initial thoughts; they should not be read as conclusive opinions, but hopefully will spark some discussion.

Thoreau begins with the question at hand: “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil.”

As the author later lets on, he deigns it morally wise to transgress them at once: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth–certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

The machine is an excellent metaphor, and it is difficult to argue with Thoreau here. I’ll also note that he believes breaking the law is best because he sees no way to remedy the evil through the state.

Brief tangent: Thoreau’s thinking is remarkably self-obsessed. This essay is not principally concerned with remedying a moral crime, but in how best a man can be a good man in the face of such outrage. He acknowledges that there are legal means to rectifying evils, but in his quoted rebuttal below, note that he does not reject them because they will take too long and allow for the moral atrocity continue, but that they will take too long relative to the interests of one Henry David Thoreau!

They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then? But in this case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil.

Thoreau’s argument for civil disobedience is incomplete, however, until he articulates his view of relationship between man and the state:

Confucius said: “If a state is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a state is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are subjects of shame.” No: until I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to me in some distant Southern port, where my liberty is endangered, or until I am bent solely on building up an estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my property and life.

I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to nature, it dies; and so a man.

For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State. But, if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in outward respects. It will not be worth the while to accumulate property; that would be sure to go again. You must hire or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs.

Thoreau’s state is an exogenous consortium that man has no moral imperative to support. He prefers the state of nature, where the acorn and chestnut play by their own rules, making no allowances for the other, with the strongest surviving for another day. There’s a lot of Rousseau here; a romanticism for the natural world without the constraints of the state. Much like my criticism of Rousseau, I think Thoreau is operating with a very distorted sense of life in nature — one that can only come from spending a great deal more time in Cambridge than in the wilderness (his time spent in the “nature” just outside his neighborhood, notwithstanding.)

Thoreau fails to address the immense benefits that he derives from the state; from the quotes above, it appears he doesn’t believe he derives any benefit from the state, as he has not had the occasion to require its protection in the most literal sense. This failure doesn’t necessarily destroy Thoreau’s argument vis-a-vis civil disobedience, but it does call into question his worldview, more generally.

Thoreau’s rejection of the state grows more muddled and inconsistent throughout the essay. At first, he stands sternly against taxation in support of an unjust government, to the point of going to jail (which, once again, allows him to wax philosophic on a night in the slammer the way only a high-minded Harvard man can), but ends stressing that his rejection is less about literal support of the government but more a symbolic rejection of allegiance to the state:

I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow countrymen now. It is for no particular item in the tax bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man a musket to shoot one with–the dollar is innocent–but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make use and get what advantages of her I can, as is usual in such cases.

He then admits: “Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable, and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?”

Puzzling; as I finished the essay, I increasingly felt that Thoreau was giving me the round-about the entire time, and that he was less concerned with speaking of things as they were then telling of his personal moral journey.

Up until now, I have been fairly critical of the airs and intellectual indulgences that I perceive in Thoreau’s thinking: this essay is the product of academia, for both better and for worse. That said, I found the concluding paragraph of Civil Disobedience so strikingly beautiful I will let it conclude this post:

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to–for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well–is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

Filed under: Philosophy

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