Henry David Thoreau, “Selected Essays” Part Two: Civil Disobedience

As hinted at in my last post, one of Thoreau’s great contributions was to suggest (it would be too much to say he moved much in his lifetime since his influence is mostly posthumous) that the proper response to injustice, specifically unjust laws or governments sustained injustice, should be disobedience not non-resistance, which was commonly held by many of his contemporaries, including prominent abolitionists.  “Civil Disobedience” is one of the selections that I read for today and will be inevitably the focus on my comments.  I did read the following works:

thoreau

“Herald of Freedom” (1844): A celebration of the anti-slavery journalist Nathaniel P. Rogers, which repeats Roger’s important point about undo respect for religious traditions.  “that Jesus Christ did not preach the abolition of slavery, then I say, he didn’t do his duty.”  (161)

“Thomas Carlyle and His Works” (1846): Furthering Thoreau’s search for greatness in writers.  Here is his examination of Thomas Carlyle search for heroes and Thoreau’s search for heroism in Carlyle.

“Civil Disobedience” (1848): Thoreau’s declaration of independence from the unjust laws of the state of Massachusetts in protest of the Mexican War and its pro-slavery goals.

“Walking” (1851/1862 published): An attempt to find “absolute freedom” in nature, through a rediscovery of “wildness.”

“A Yankee in Canada” (1853): A travelogue of Thoreau’s 1850 trip to Canada.  He writes much on the differences between Canada and New England, suggesting stark differences between the two civilizations.

We see the continuation of many of the themes in Thoreau’s work from the early 1840s such as the Promethean spirit of man and how to revive it from a civilization of mediocrity and his fascination with wilderness as a locus for the search for human greatness.  We also see his movement into politics as Thoreau moved into the sectional conversation.  Most of his political writing is tied directly or indirectly to the sectional conflicts of the 1840s and 1850s, up to and including his great writings on John Brown, which I will explore in the next post.

If we put “Walking” and “Civil Disobedience” next to each other we see mirror image arguments.  While “Walking” is suggesting that the locus of a true freedom is in nature and wildness, “Civil Disobedience” looks for how we can come to terms with civil government.   I would suggest that the libertarian cannot afford to examine just one or the other.  It is not enough to just come to terms with some limited government or struggle against imposed injustices, as essential as those struggles may be.  We also need imagination.  Conversely, imagination and a lifestyle of “true freedom” (perhaps variants of lifestyle anarchism) does not go far enough if it is not also in rebellion against the injustice of civil government.  We cannot ignore that governments exist and commit cruelties.  Remember, Thoreau was relatively immune from the injustices of slavery and the Mexican War (outside of the small tax he was to pay).  He was enjoying a relatively free bachelor life in Concord.  His debate with civil government was his attempt to maximize freedom for others.  This is the shortcoming of lifestyle anarchism, because it can only save the few, the lucky, the most imaginative, or the bravest.

“Walking” opens with: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” (225)  Walking through an untouched landscape is particularly special because it is separated (often by fences) from development, civilization, and private property.  Thoreau is careful to separate freedom from property.  “The landscape is not owned, and the walked enjoys comparative freedom.” (233) We also might see in this essay some of his profound anxiety about the Mexican War.  The Mexican War promised not only to spread slavery to the West, but also civilization.  Thoreau admired the west but hoped it could remain “the Wild.” (239) Thoreau is also, of course, interested in sustaining a world that is suitable for art and creativity.  I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s claim that socialism is essential for a world that can cultivate individualism and artistic expression when I read Thoreau calling for halting the spread of civilization and ensuring the Wild’s sustainability (he does not use this late 21st century term) for the aid of art.  “In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us.  Dulness is but another name for tameness.  It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in “Hamlet” and the “Iliad,” in all the Scripture and Mythologies, not learned in schools, that delights us.” (244)  All is not lost.  Even as domestic animals can “reassert their native rights,” civilization can find its way back to the Wild.  He is only resigned in that for the time being most of us will be “fit subjects for civilization” and only a few will not.

It is that reality that civilization has domesticated most people that makes “Civil Disobedience” such an important essays.  Its inspiration to the methods of countless social movements and radical thinkers in the past century and a half likely makes anything I have to say banal.  Yet, this blog is about the American tradition and anarchism and this is a central text of that intersection so I am obliged to express my thoughts, as banal as they may end up being.  We start with his hope that government govern as little as possible, maximizing the principle of leaving people alone.  This seems unlikely because government will tend to express the will of the majority, and who makes up this majority?  “The mass of men serve the that thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.  They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus.” (205)  Furthermore, that majority will and indeed has established and actively defends unjust laws.  We also have, from the American Revolution (actually from the Magna Carta but Thoreau does not mention that) the right of revolution against unjust governments.  What Thoreau masterfully does here is extend the principle of revolution against unjust governments to revolution against unjust laws.  Voting, which is just a “form of gaming” (208) does not go far enough because it still leaves the judgment to the majority.  The proper challenge to democracy’s unjust laws is a tendency toward greater individualism, and this requires the individual resistance against injustice through open opposition to those laws – not opting out or “non-resistance.”  “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” (213)  Liberty is finally rooted in disobedience.  Perhaps it is through such disobedience that we can go from the reality of civil government to the absolute freedom Thoreau pines for in “Walking.”

Well, I reckon this is not a new observation, but I do find that by reading “Walking” and “Civil Disobedience” side by side we find ourselves pondering the debate between the activist and the lifestylist.  Where they come together is in an assertion of individualism.  The strongest activism is that which comes out of individual and active resistance to civil government, while the true home of the individual is in “the Wild.”

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