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Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau

Section Two

Section One

Section Three

Summary

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.

All Abolitionists should immediately stop lending either their persons or their property to support the government of Massachusetts. Thoreau says that he only interacts directly with the American government once a year when the tax collector comes. And then he makes a point to quarrel with this person to make sure he understands what it means to be an officer of the government. These small protests are very important: "For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once done well is done for ever." However, the majority of people, rather than protesting, simply talk emptily. If people were to risk action, to risk imprisonment, then change would actually occur.

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.

Commentary

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?

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