Books

Book Review: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

This essay is a call to live by one’s conscience. Thoreau asks to resist being part of a government that rules by tyranny, is against humanity on man, or supports injustice towards a person even if the said injustice is what a majority wants. According to him, a majority’s opinion isn’t a reason to follow their example. A majority isn’t based on justice. I’m not sure if he gives a clear definition of what it is based on, maybe upon convention or being part of the views of others. He supports an individual’s right to their convictions and to pursue their notions through action. According to him, it’s not enough to hold ideals. It’s an action that defines one’s moral code. Otherwise, one, so to speak, subdues under the governmental machine and supports its wheels by not acting according to their view of right and just. And when it comes to government, any institution to be just, it needs conscience men to form it. A corporation, as he puts it, doesn’t have a conscience. It’s then all of our duty to uphold the moral or resign. Though he acknowledges that all machines (governments/institutions) have friction, but if such friction is the cause of suffering, it’s one’s duty to disobey and be the counter friction.

Thoreau wrote this essay in his abhorrence against slavery and the upcoming Mexican-American War. He sees them as unjust and against humanity. And he stands with what he says. He rebelled against his legal institutions by refusing to pay taxes. He calls such action as a way to influence the system. In his view, even a minor protest is enough to cause an avalanche of similar acts through inspiration and visibility—a way for a peaceful revolution. Thoreau doesn’t detail what kind of peaceful rebellious actions one could take other than refuse to be part of the government and pay its taxes. Civil Disobedience is more of a plea for the nature of man rather than a proven concept for rebellion. He wants to provoke the idea that all men have a right to refuse allegiance with a tyrannical government, all men have a right for their views, all should think for themselves, and all should live according to their nature. He proposes that if a plant can’t live according to its nature, it dies. So does man. 

It’s just that it’s his view of the nature of men and how they behave and what moral conscience should look like. Thoreau is frustrated with his fellow citizens. He states that many speak against slavery and support other noble ideas, yet they do nothing and continue to reap the benefits of the misery of others. Bright men should not leave their conscience to chance and prevail under the majority. Again, the action is a way to salvation. Another thing he points out is that people pray for absolution for their souls rather than act well. He acknowledges their ignorance, yet, I fear he offers no act of education. But maybe he has, and that is the cause of all the resentment?

But how can a man live by his conscience? Here I think Thoreau’s arguments fail short. He waves the argument by stating one to live for themselves. And as many of you know who have read Walden, his key to this predicament is to step out of society and live solely in nature. But is this a solution we all should take? Would it improve our lives? Would it able man to live by their true nature as individuals and as free to support their moral conscience? I would argue not. It’s a noble and romantic idea, and part of me is drawn to it, especially when I roam in the woods. There and then, I don’t want to return to civility. But we humans are not solitary creatures. We are born social, and we need that sociality to survive, hence communities, cities, governments. Of course, we can argue here that the survival of our species isn’t such an important thing. In my bad days or good, you can decide, I would say that our planet would be better off without us and that we serve no purpose. But here I am, still existing and wanting to exist. The answer isn’t a mass extinction. But that is beside the point for now. However, Thoreau offers us an example of how conscience man is not to live, and that is by pursuing money and property. A rich man isn’t free. Not morally and not to act freely. He is always tied to what makes him rich, and after that, his sole concern is how to spend his money rather than to live for himself. In the end, all Thoreau offers us is the desire to be an individual, freedom to choose, and not to be forced to act against one’s nature. We are not born here to be the engineers of the machine, the government.

In the end, he asks what the best governance system for an individual to thrive in is? He is doubtful of democracy, but he has no alternative to propose—just a wish for the state to recognize the individual and neighbors to treat each other with respect. As it is not so, he sees we have a right to rebel and break the laws, which are unjust, as actions from principles will change the system. We cannot wait and watch as our lives go by. He acknowledges that we cannot do everything, but it is not a reason to do wrong. Hence, back to that argument that even a minor action is enough: refuse to cooperate.

I don’t refute what Henry David Thoreau says. I agree with many of his statements, yet, I fear they are not as simple and straightforward as he proposes. Human relations are complex; our behavior and acting according to our values are weirder—scientists are still trying to figure that one out; opting out from society has yet to work so that it would solve this problem we call existing. And what is the nature of man, and is there such a thing as universal human morality? Yet, he makes a valid point not to see the views of the majority as just or right. Our job is to check our opinions and be critical of how we rule and are ruled, and to rebel when we see abuse.

Thank you for reading and have a great day ❤

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