, Research Paper Summary Thoreau begins Civil Disobedience by saying that he agrees with the motto, “That government is best which governs least.” Indeed, he says, men will someday be able to have a government that does not govern at all. As it is, government rarely proves useful or efficient. It is often “abused and perverted” so that it no longer represents the will of the people.
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The American government is necessary because “the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.” However, the only times when government has been useful has been when it has stood aside. Thoreau says that government does not, in fact, achieve that with which we credit it: it does not keep the country free, settle the West, or educate. Rather, these achievements come from the character of the American people, and they would have been even more successful in these endeavors had government been even less involved. Thoreau also complains about restrictions on trade and commerce. However, Thoreau then says that speaking “practically and as a citizen,” he is not asking for the immediate elimination of government. Rather, for the moment, he is asking for a better government.
Thoreau argues that by answering to the majority, democracies answer the desires of the strongest group, not the most virtuous or thoughtful. A government founded on this principle cannot be based on justice. Why can’t there be a government where right and wrong are not decided by the majority but by conscience? Thoreau writes, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward.” He asserts that it is more important to develop a respect for the right, rather than a respect for law, for people’s obligations are to do what is right. too much respect for law leads people to do many unjust things, as war illustrates: Soldiers become only a shadow of their humanity; the government shapes them into machines. Soldiers have no opportunity to exercise moral sense, reduced to the existence
comparable to that of a horse or dog. Yet these men are often called good citizens. Similarly, most legislators and politicians do not put moral sense first, and those few who do are persecuted as enemies.
The question then becomes how to behave toward the American government. Thoreau’s answer is to avoid associating with it altogether. He declares, “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.” Thoreau says that while everyone recognizes the right to revolution when faced with an intolerably tyrannical or inefficient government, most people say that such a revolution would not be warranted under current conditions. However, Thoreau argues that we have not only the right, but indeed the duty, to rebel. The enslavement of one sixth of the population and the invasion of Mexico represent tremendous injustices that we must not allow to continue.
Thoreau criticizes the attitude that civil obligation should be maintained for the sake of expediency and that government should be obeyed simply to preserve the services we enjoy. Expediency does not take precedence over justice; people must do what justice requires regardless of cost–indeed, even if the cost is one’s own life. Thus, Thoreau writes, “If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.” The people of the United States must stop slavery and the war with Mexico, even if it costs them their existence as a people.
In practice, the opponents to reform in Massachusetts are not the Southern politicians everyone blames for extreme conservativism. Rather, they are the people who passively tolerate the status quo: merchants and farmers in Massachusetts who are not will ing to fight for justice at any cost. Many argue that the majority of U.S. citizens would be unprepared for the societal changes that slavery would bring about. Thoreau responds to this by saying that we need only a few wise people to educate the majori ty and, thus, prepare them for these changes. There are thousands of people who oppose slavery and war with Mexico and yet do nothing, waiting for others to take action. It is this passive waiting that Thoreau condemns.
Thoreau’s essay is both an abstract work of political theory and a practical and topical work addressing the issues of the day. Both aspects appear in this first section. On the one hand, Thoreau is making several theoretical claims about the nature of democracy and the relationship between citizen and government. For example, Thoreau argues that government should be based on conscience and that citizens should cease associating
with an unjust government. Thus, Thoreau’s work must be considered as a work of political philosophy, invoking ideals and making claims about the way government and society should be structured. However, Thoreau writes not only about theory; his essay is also very much an appeal to his fellow Massachusetts residents about the current issues of the day. He discusses slavery and the war with Mexico as very real issues in their lives, and he impels his readers to action. Thus, he uses theory to posit how people should behave generally, and then applies this to current events. One’s duties are inextricable from the world one lives in, and Thoreau is deeply concerned with the injustices of his own time.
One of the most important themes throughout Thoreau’s work is the notion of individualism. Deeply skeptical of government, Thoreau rejects the view that a person must sacrifice or marginalize her values out of loyalty to her government. Furthermore, he argues that if an individual supports the government in any way–even by simply respecting its authority as a government– then that person is complicit in injustices forwarded by the government. This lays an extremely heavy responsibility on the individual: to compromise, negotiate, or passively accept is to betray one’s integrity and commit a crime. But, consider how unstable a community would be if it followed this newspoint: Can a society function if everybody is a “man first and a subject afterwards”? But, even if Thoreau’s principle does become implausible when universalized, does this mean that it cannot pertain to a particular person’s actions? Thoreau would say “no.” Indeed, Thoreau knew that not everybody was going to follow his individualistic values; he argued that his duty was to set a standard for himself. This attitude can be understood as either imprudent or brave. It is worth noting, though, that a strong sense of individualism and skepticism toward government has served as the basis for many important reform movements; they are particularly American values and have allowed America to become a nation of relative freedom
After having presented his view of man’s individualistic duties as a citizen, Thoreau turns to how citizens should respond to their government’s injustices. He says that he does not believe that voting is the proper solution. Voting for justice is not really acting for it. Rather, it is “feebly” expressing your desire that the right prevail. A wise man will not leave justice to the chance of a majority vote. The majority will end up voting their interest, voting for what will benefit them. A principled person must follow his conscience. Furthermore, nowadays, there are no people who vote independently of what their political parties tell them to do. There are almost no men in America, according to Thoreau. He complains of people’s lack of intellect and self-reliance, as well as their complacency.
Thoreau writes that a person does not have a duty actually to eliminate wrongs– even the most serious wrongs. A person may legitimately have other goals and pursuits. However, at the very least, a person must “wash his hands” of injustice and not be associated with something that is wrong. He asserts, “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting on another man’s shoulders.” Thus, it is hypocritical for a person to commend a soldier for refusing to fight in an unjust war while that same person continues to sustain the unjust government that is pursuing the war.
Everyone agrees that unjust laws exist. The question is whether we should be content to obey them, whether we should try to change them but obey until they’re changed, or whether we should disobey them at once. Most people in a democracy believe that the second course is best. They believe that if they resist, the revolution would be worse than the injustice. However, it is the government’s fault that this is the case: The government doesn’t encourage reform and dissent. Thoreau asks, “Why does [the majority-led government] always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?”
Thoreau then returns to the metaphor of the government-as-machine. He says that if an injustice is part of the “necessary friction” of the “machine of government,” then it should be left alone. Perhaps the machine will wear smooth; in any case, it will eventually wear out. If the injustice has its own spring, rope or pulley, then one must consider whether the remedy is worse than the injustice. However, if the government requires one to be an agent of injustice toward another, then Thoreau says one must break the law. He urges the reader to be a “counter-friction” to the machine and not to participate in the wrong.
Thoreau then argues that working for change through government takes too much time and requires a person to waste his life. He is in the world simply to live in it and can’t devote all of his time to making it a good place to live. A person doesn’t have time to do everything good yet, this doesn’t mean he must do anything wrong. In the case of the United States, the government doesn’t provide room for remedy anyway; the very Constitution is evil.
Thoreau maintains that “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” This is true today in Massachusetts, he says: in prison, a person can live with honor among the victims of injustice. Perhaps a person might think she could not be useful in jail, would be incapacitated to bring about change. In response to such a person, Thoreau replies that she does know how much stronger truth is than error–how much more powerfully a person can combat injustice once that person has experienced it for herself. He urges the reader to “cast your whole vote” against injustice, meaning not just a ballot but one’s whole influence. A minority is irresistible when it uses its whole weight. For, if given the choice of renouncing slavery and war on the one hand and keeping all just men in prison on the other, the state will choose to eliminate its unjust policies.
Thoreau explains that he has hitherto focused on imprisonment instead of confiscation of goods, primarily because those who are most committed to justice have typically avoided accumulating property. To these people, even a slight tax probably appears exorbitant because the state offers so few services for them. Furthermore, the rich man is always sold to the institution that made him rich; as money increases, virtue decreases. The only questions wealth nurtures is the question of how to spend that money–it never fosters self-questioning and moral consideration. Thus, focusing on material wealth, a person loses his moral ground. With greater life “means,” his real opportunity to live is diminished. Thus, the best thing a person can do for his culture when he is rich is to attempt to live his life as he did while he was poor.
Thoreau then addresses those readers who might raise the concern that people need the government’s protection and who are worried about the consequences of civil disobedience to their property and family. He says that he himself would never want to think himself dependent on the State’s protection. However, he acknowledges that if he refuses to pay taxes it will mean he will lose his property and that the state will harass his family. This is “hard,” he admits: It is hard to live honestly and yet outwardly comfortably at the same time. Thus, he concludes that it is not worthwhile to accumulate property. One should be self-sufficient and farm only a small crop. “You must live within yourself,” he tells the reader. He quotes Confucius as saying that if a state is not governed by reason, then riches are a source of shame. He reasons that it costs him less “in every sense” to pay the penalty of disobeying the State than it would to obey it. That is, less is lost in forgoing the government’s protection and in suffering harassment to one’s family, than in sacrificing one’s integrity in passive compliance with the government’s unjust policies. For if he were to sacrifice his integrity, Thoreau explains, “I should feel as if I were worth less” as a person.
Thoreau makes an important philosophical point here about the ways in which people are (and are not) responsible for harm that befalls others. Most significantly, he argues that individuals are responsible for injustices that they participate in. Participation has a broad meaning for Thoreau: Being a member of an unjust institution, even being a citizen of an unjust nation, makes a person a participant in injustice. Even paying taxes to an evil government is enough to leave a person morally tarnished. For this reason, Thoreau argues that people have a duty to disassociate from the government and to not support it either financially or as persons. However, Thoreau does not argue that there is a parallel duty to promote as much good as possible in the world. People have a duty not to cause evil, but they do not have a duty to work against evil that they did not cause. Morality does not require that a person work to bring about a “better” world. Rather, a person must simply not make the world any worse. Thoreau’s distinction here is linked to his individualism: He argues that each person should live for himself and take advantage of his short time on earth to follow his own interests and goals. For Thoreau, a person can very legitimately have concerns that must take priority over improving the world; individuals should maintain their integrity by staying true to their values and concerns. However, precisely for this reason, a person is responsible for the evil that they perform–both directly and indirectly, via tacit support. Thus, there is a special duty not to cause or participate in evil.
It is also worth considering how Thoreau’s ideas relate to democracy. Thoreau was certainly critical of democracy and its rule by the majority; thus, for him, if civil disobedience damaged democratic institutions, there was no real harm done. However, those people who do value democracy might question how compatible civil disobedience is with this system of government. Democracy is ultimately about compromise; people accept the decision of the majority because they know that others will accept their decisions when they are in the majority. However, Thoreau argues that any such compromise on ethical issues is a moral sell-out. A person should never participate in evil, not even if it is the law. Therefore, Thoreau does not play by democracy’s “rules of the game.” Rather, he calls for people to remove themselves from the government when they believe that they are being asked to do something wrong. However, Thoreau does not fully disobey democracy’s rules either: He accepts that by breaking one law (e.g., the law to pay taxes) he will be punished under another (criminal) law, and he does not say that people should try to avoid the consequences of their disobedience– they should not go into hiding or exile; they should not resist arrest. Rather, society must see the consequences of its laws; by staying in jail, we force society to consider whether it is willing to keep all just men in jail. Thus, Thoreau does believe in following certain laws–for this, too, can effectively change society. Do you think there are different duties of disobedience depending on the kind of law passed and the ability of those affected by the law to change it?
Thoreau now turns to his personal experiences with civil disobedience. He says that he hasn’t paid a poll tax for six years and that he spent a night in jail once because of this. His experience in jail did not hurt his spirit: “I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to break through, before they could get to be as free as I was.” Since the State couldn’t reach his essential self, they decided to punish his body. This illustrated the State’s ultimate weakness, and Thoreau says that he came to pity the State. The masses can’t force him to do anything; he is subject only to those who obey a higher law. He says that he has to obey his own laws and try to flourish in this way.
The night in prison, he recounts, was “novel and interesting enough.” His roommate had been accused of burning down a barn, though Thoreau speculated that the man had fallen asleep drunk in the barn while smoking a pipe. Thoreau was let in on the gossip and history of the jail and was shown several verses that were composed in the jail. The workings of the jail fascinated him, and staying in jail that night was like traveling in another country. He felt as if he was seeing his town through the light of the middle ages–as if he had never heard the sounds of his town before. After the first night, however, somebody interfered and paid his tax, and so he was released from prison the next day. Upon Thoreau’s release, it seemed some kind of change had come over the town, the State and the country. He realized that the people he lived with were only friends in the good times. They were not interested in justice or in taking any risks. He soon left the town and was out of view of the State again.
Thoreau says that he always pays the highway tax because he wants to be a good neighbor, but, generally, he avoids all taxes. However, his refusal to pay taxes is not based on a desire to boycott one or two government practices in particular or the practices that a certain tax funds. Rather, he is refusing allegiance to the State as a whole. “In fact,” he states, “I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.” Considering the anonymous person who paid his tax for him and let him out of jail, he says that if that person paid his tax out of sympathy with the State, then he or she was simply aiding injustice. If the person did it to help him, then he or she was letting his or her private feelings interfere with the public good. Thoreau says that he sometimes wants to respect his neighbors’ desires, knowing that they mean well. However, he reminds himself that there are other people (e.g., the slaves) who would be much more hurt if he went along with his neighbors. He does not believe that he must accept men as they are and give up thinking of how they ought to be. In going against his fellow men, he believes that he can have some impact.
Thoreau says that he doesn’t want conflicts with any other person or country. Rather, he wants to follow the law, and he looks for reasons to follow it. He quotes a verse: “We must affect [i.e., "treat"] our country as our parents, / And if at any time we alienate / Our love or industry from doing it honor, / We must respect effects and teach the soul / Matter of conscience and religion, / And not desire of rule or benefit.” He says that seen from a “lower” point of view, the Constitution and other laws warrant respect, despite their faults. From higher points of view, however, they appear less and less virtuous. But then, he says, the government doesn’t concern him very much, and he avoids thinking about it.
Thoreau concludes by saying that no one with legislative genius has yet appeared in America–such people are rare in the world’s history. He writes that government’s authority is “impure.” To be just, authority must be based on the consent of the governed; its only rights are the rights that the individual gives it. The movement toward democracy constitutes progress toward true respect for the individual. However, democracy is not the last step that can be made. He says that he dreams of a State that respects the individual, a State that would not mind if a few individuals even chose to live independent of it altogether. This kind of State would prepare the way for an even more “perfect and glorious State.”
In addition to its arguments about political theory, Civil Disobedience is an interesting historical source. Consider what issues consume his writing and the historical figures he mentions. How has the world changed since Thoreau’s times, and do these changes affect the relevancy of his overall message? For example, one such change has been to the size of government in America: In our time, government programs have become much more all-pervasive than they were during Thoreau’s life, affecting many more aspects of our life; might it no longer be possible to remove oneself from such an omnipresent force? It is also worth considering the degree to which Thoreau’s arguments gain rhetorical power because he was opposing true injustices. All modern readers would agree with Thoreau about the evils of slavery, and, thus, we are more easily convinced of the good of a practice that protests such an evil. However, would we agree about the good of civil disobedience if Thoreau were using it to support slavery or war? Moreover, some issues are less clear-cut than these. For example, not all people believe that all wars are necessarily bad–one might support a war against a tyrannical regime. When this tyrannical regime was Nazi Germany, nearly all Americans supported going to war (once we were attacked by Germany’s ally Japan, at least). But, when this regime was the Communist regime in Vietnam, the American support was less unilateral. Indeed, many American citizens practiced some form of civil disobedience in protest of the Vietnam War; was this warranted? Think about whether you find Thoreau’s principles convincing when separated from his particular examples.
Thoreau also provides an important message about the value of non-conformity. Not only is he concerned about the injustices practiced by the American government; he is also concerned about the government’s intolerance toward non-conformity and dissent. He argues that many of the world’s problems come from the fact that entrenched majorities make it impossible for other people to pursue justice as they see it. He also presents his idea for a utopian world in which the government would allow people to choose to live independently of the government itself. Note that this idea depends on the assumption that citizenship is a matter of choice. Some thinkers have questioned this assumption, arguing that people are born into connections with others that they cannot control or change. These thinkers argue that people cannot simply disassociate with their world or even their government; they have obligations not only to their own thoughts and feelings but also to the thoughts and feelings of others and to the needs of those around them. Thoreau, however, contends that, regardless of other connections, a person is ultimately responsible to himself alone and can and should see himself as independent of his society and government. Do you agree with this extreme individualism?
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