Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

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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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