Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau

Section Three

Summary Section Three


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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