Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience According to the Encarta World English Dictionary, civil disobedience is the deliberate breaking of a law by ordinary citizens, carried out as nonviolent protest or passive resistance. Henry David Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience, had idealistic motives. He visualized a perfect government, free of harm, fault, and malfunction. Of course, this government he spoke of was purely off his needs, failing to review or analyze the needs of his fellow citizens. In accusing the reader, Thoreau obtained the reactions he wanted.
Raised eyebrows, negative feedback, debates, and retorting, were the resulting factors. The disputes sparked are endless. “The authority of government is still an impure one. ” This statement suggests Thoreau recognized that the government was not liable to revolutionize. In spite of this, he erects a disgraceful depiction of the reader, and presents it. Obliterating the observer’s self-esteem, he conveys amusement, and portrays the indignity that they will forever undergo. “Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immorality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. Using the same strategy, Thoreau highlights subject to shame as far more catastrophic than materialistic loss. The outcome of this irrational strategy leads to grudges, resentment, loathing and further argumentation, defeating the purpose to begin with. “Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? ” By this, we all know Thoreau is accentuating his own needs, rather than those of the majority, because as he has already stated, “A majority are permitted. Instead of distinguishing the fact that the “majority” of people are satisfied with the government formation, he insists on irritating them and trying to change their motives, in reproofing the fulfilled ambitions they have accomplished, and hopes for tomorrow. His unawareness in this and other perspectives are clearly visible. Believing his thoughts are superior, it is tempting to conclude that Thoreau likes to imagine himself as a divine power, to say the least. There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, and treats him accordingly. ” Vainly referring to his “type,” he concludes the essay with the hope that people will recognize individualism, and reconsider the mainstream government. Overlooking the calamity that is sure to fall into play, if in fact, his matchless society is reached. Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience,” was an exceptional way of educating the public on why they should not settle for a less than perfect government.
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His credence in demanding an improved government was a great reminder that Thomas Jefferson insisted that it was our “duty, to throw off” an unsatisfactory government in the Declaration of Independence. Thoreau’s essay also explained why people choose not to do anything about it. Thoreau stated that people “cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it”. So it makes sense that most people would not be willing to risk losing their property, family, or life.
However, we should not feel this way, because Jefferson also stated that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed. ” Jefferson then went on and stated “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it and to institute new Government”. It is not as if people do not have problems with the government. We protest the same things that Thoreau did: paying for wars, services that we personally do not use, corruption in our government, etc.
Yet our society today does not use productive means to invoke our “Right of the People” and demand a “better government”. There are people who do choose to abide by some of Thoreau’s suggestions for dealing with our government. Many people refuse to pay taxes. Jefferson did claim that “imposing taxes on us without our Consent” was grounds for a request for new government. Thoreau did not have a problem with paying “for no particular item in the tax-bill,” he just did not want to show “allegiance to the State”. He supposed that he did not join the “incorporated society” that is the State, so why should he pay its debts?
There are others who strictly believe that there is a need for an improved government. However, we have seen that these efforts to “better government” sometimes go overboard and can cause major tribulations. Some of these active actions can be seen from overwhelming actions of militiamen, cults, and plain outright anti-government people. They have their issues with the government; claiming it as a corrupt one, refusing to incur the nation’s debt (very Thoreau-like), and showing a complete lack of respect for it.
There are many cases where pro-lifers have seen it fit to kill abortion doctors because they believe that abortion should not be legal. Regardless of a person’s stance on abortion, it is clearly evident that murder is not an action that could be considered right. Does this mean that Thoreau was wrong? There are others who show their protest by picketing in front abortion clinics, sending angry letters, and even hacking into pro-choice web-sites to prevent the spread of their messages. Granted these means are non-violent, they still bring fear into normal everyday people.
Does this mean that Thoreau’s words simply incite more wrong? Bei Dao’s verse was often considered to be defiance to the Chinese government during the 1960’s and 1970’s when he wrote such poems as “The Answer”. In this poem, Bei Dao proclaims to the world and more specifically to the government, that “If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet, Count me as number one thousand and one” He was tired of seeing his people being held back by a repressive and fraudulent government and believed that by writing about it, people would stand up for what they believed in.
Bei Dao’s words gave hope to many that things could be changed if they wanted it to, and it did. People decided to become that “abrasion” to the government when they protested during the Tiananmen Square movements in 1979 and 1989, causing a change in the way the government treated its people and the way the world viewed China. Have we not seen evidence to show that a corrupt government rules us? How many times have we charged our political leaders with some form of financial theft? The answer is very often. We have seen high political igures lie to us about their actions and we have seen them use our money for their personal use instead of for the country. Yet we continue to let them play with our money, our livelihood, and our families until they become tired. We believe the government is crooked; their corporations of unjust men are simply just using us. We write about it in editorials, laugh about it on comedies, and become outraged when we see it in our movies and dramas. The problem is finding someone willing to face consequences that are so unspeakable that it affects the people at large.
Martin Luther King was one such man who ended up facing the consequence of death for standing up to the government for his ideas. However, King’s organized marches and peaceful protests were instrumental in ending one of the governments most evil of institutions, segregation. John Brown was another individual who decided to stand up to the government. He saw that action, be violent or passive, was the only way to end another of the American government’s evil fixtures, slavery. Brown’s “take no prisoner” actions led to the US Civil War two years after he overtook Harpers Ferry and his death, resulting in the abolition of slavery.
These beings agreed that the people must let their “life be a counter friction to stop the machine” of an unjust government so as to ‘not lend oneself to the wrong which we condemn’ King not only followed the content of Thoreau’s words but also the style that he used to present it. During one of King’s trips to the “… true place for a just man… “, prison, he wrote a “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to several Christian ministers who disagreed with his civil protest. He also urged people to act upon their moral and disobey “… njust laws”. To ensure that his ideas remain coherent, he first explains that “a just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God”. He then claimed that “an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law”. King continues by explaining how unjust laws “… distorts the soul and damages the personality”. King’s style was similar to Thoreau’s in the way that their ideas were expressed. Both begin their essay/letter by describing the current state of affairs.
They gave examples of similar predicaments elsewhere and used quotes of famous people such as Confucius and Socrates to show how other intellectuals felt about the topic. Some theorists maintain that civil disobedience is an outdated, overanalyzed notion that little reflects current forms of political activism, which tend toward more extreme modes of engagement. Certainly though there have been shifts in the paradigm forms of civil disobedience in recent years; yet these shifts have occurred largely within the framework of conscientious communication discussed at the outset.
Civil disobedience remains today very much a vibrant part of liberal democracies and there are significant issues concerning civil disobedience for philosophers to address, particularly in how this practice may be distinguished from more radical forms of protest and how this practice should be treated by the law. With that said, it is obvious that all we can do is agree with Thoreau when he said “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right”.