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  • Writer's pictureAlex Sun

Some Thoughts on Thoreau's Civil Disobedience

In the passage Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau addresses the relationship between our conscience and the government. He proposes the ideal government in his mind and encourages his audiences to act according to their conscience and own will.

“Unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at one no government, but at once a better government.” If Thoreau was not suggesting that we should overthrow the government once and for all, then what is he recommending? “Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.” Thoreau recommends that we should have a government ruled by people’s conscience rather than by majority because “a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice.” American government, as Thoreau states at the very beginning of his article, was one of those majorities’ governments and was lagging the society back. Thoreau then uses lots of words and paragraphs to explain how should a man behave toward the American government today.

There are a plethora of interpretations of Thoreau’s thoughts, but I think, what he proposes in this article is that every man should be inner-directed, opinionated, and independent. There is a striking similarity between this and the ideas of his predecessor, William Penn, who thinks that people should act according to the universal divine Light within them, who actively and passionately defends the religious freedom. That divine Light, here in Thoreau’s passage, is conscience and the individual opinion. He emphasizes this point countless times in various ways. First, he points out that the mass of men who serves and follows the state blindly are just machines. Even worse, he wrote “Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt” They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs.” Of course, readers do not want to act like rigid machines or animals with no souls. Thoreau thereby implies that people should live up to their own consciences. More importantly, Thoreau states that people should live up to themselves but not to comform to the majority. “Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them.” “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” Thoreau conveys the point to his readers that being the minority and keeping your own conscience and voices is not dreadful but honorable, even it means that you might be locked in the prison as what happened to Thoreau himself.

More concretely, what Thoreau recommends those who do not want to act to support the slavery is that “he cannot without disgrace be associated with it (the government).” Thoreau’s approach is simple but effective. If you don’t agree with the current government’s acts, stop having any allegiance to it. “It’s not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even to most enormous, wrong.” Thoreau acknowledges that individuals do not have the responsibility to change the system and achieve beyond what they’re capable of. However, Thoreau continues to say “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.” People who do not agree with the government have the duty to stop supporting it in any means and do not lend themselves to the wrong which they condemn.

Though not being explicitly discussed in this passage, Thoreau's practice of non-violent non-cooperation is implied in certain paragraphs. “You must hire or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live within yourself…” In discussing the point that paying taxes is also an act of collaborating with the unjust government, Thoreau implicitly sets forth the idea of living simply. After all, if you choose to live simply, you naturally cut off all the connections with the system and can truly follow your inner voice. This method, though sounds impractical, is indeed very peaceful. “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.” “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power.” “I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men.” At the ending of his passage, Thoreau delivers the final message. This also implies Thoreau’s attitude toward using violence, as he hopes the government could be reasoned with and can realize all the points he emphasizes in the article.

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