Henry David Thoreau exerted a profound
influence on nineteenth century America both for his writings and what he represented. If
Emerson embodied the philosophical side of Transcendentalism, Thoreau was a man of action, proving beyond all doubt the significance
of trusting in nature and relying on one’s intuition to determine a particular course of action. The lecture “What
Would Thoreau Think?” delivered at Boston University
in 2007, focused on his career as a botanist who spent long hours at Walden Pond cataloguing
plants and studying their reproductive cycles. This reflected one of the essential paradoxes about Thoreau; while trusting
in the intuition, he retained a lasting belief in scientific enquiry. By studying nature in depth, individuals could better
know themselves. This was especially significant, particularly if it came to defying the elected government and its institutions.
“Civil Disobedience,” read in an educational recording by an uncredited male speaker, made this point clear. Individuals
should listen to their conscience – that part of themselves most nourished by nature – rather than trusting in
elected representatives. On many occasions such representatives repress the people by forcing them to accept a given point
of view without demur. Those who existed to reinforce that point – the police, or prison offers – were nothing
else but animals, deprived of the power to think. Produced at the time of considerable unrest, “Civil Disobedience”
was a classic defence of the individual will, which had considerable importance for future statespersons such as Lenin and
Gandhi. Thoreau did not preach revolution; on the contrary, he supported the notion of democratically elected government.
Moreover he strongly believed that resistance in whatever shape or form – active or passive – could never challenge
nature or the order of the universe. On the other hand, by acting according to their consciences, individuals could expose
corruption within the state – its preoccupation with money, or its assumption that by imprisoning people, they would
automatically remove them from the scene. Thoreau argues, quite rightly, that even prisoners still possess freedom of thought;
and are thereby potentially subversive.
Written in accessible language, with long
sentences composed of multiple subordinate clauses exemplifying the author’s main points, “Civil Disobedience”
not only criticizes the government of Massachusetts, but
reflects Thoreau’s passionate opposition to all forms of repression, including slavery. It calls for governments –
whether local or national – to recognize the importance of freedom of expression and accept the will of the people.
For Thoreau individualism forms the basis of state and empire, retaining an independent and potentially limitless power.
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