BOOK REVIEW: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Civil DisobedienceCivil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This 30+ page political philosophy essay argues that it is one’s responsibility to avoid letting the government make one complicit in its unjust activities. The major points of contention for Thoreau were two-fold: state facilitation of the institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War (which Thoreau – like many – saw as a shameless land grab.) Thoreau put his money where his mouth was, and was briefly jailed for failure to pay taxes. [This brief stay might have been much longer had not someone paid the tax bill without Thoreau’s knowledge. While Thoreau doesn’t name said individual (if he ever knew who it was,) he treats that person as someone who did a bad deed in his name rather than someone to be thanked.] The discussion focuses heavily on tax-paying (or, rather, non-payment) as opposed to other acts of civil disobedience / passive resistance / non-violence such as breaking unjust laws.

This essay has been cited as an influence by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, and many who are less well-known as proponents of non-violent resistance against oppressive or unjust governance. While the meeting of unjust governance with passive resistance has shown itself to be a powerful strategy in the intervening years, Thoreau was at the vanguard of thinking on this issue. Later activists would expand the domain of civil disobedience greatly, and it would become more explicitly associated with non-violent opposition. [Thoreau doesn’t talk up the virtue of avoiding violence like Gandhi does, but he also doesn’t mention violence as an alternative to his approach — and it seems he would find violent acts as morally reprehensible as supporting the government in its acts of aggressive violence.] I would be interested to know the following of this essay by different elements of the political spectrum today, and how that following was influenced by those who took up its banner. [It has a libertarian “the government is fundamentally untrustworthy” vibe going, but I suspect it is probably popular with elements the left who generally view the government as a savior against corporations, given the essay’s past proponents. Though I could be wrong.]

Thoreau doesn’t focus on his own case, which he only gets to well into the essay and which he addresses in quick manner. Rather, he spends most of the essay discussing the justification for breaking the law (i.e. not paying taxes) and what is moral and proper and what is not. [e.g. He says that he pays the highway tax because his desire to be a good neighbor matches his desire to be a poor subject. [paraphrased.]] Obviously, it’s a nuanced issue. If no one paid their taxes who had a gripe with the government, it might just result in everyone finding a gripe with the government – in perpetuity. Thoreau, himself, has quite a negative view of government’s ability to be just. While his focus is on abolition of slavery and the war with Mexico, it’s not as though he proposes that these are exceptional and uncharacteristic cases.

Though it is short, this essay can be obtained as a standalone work (as it’s reviewed here,) but it’s also included in many Thoreau collections and political philosophy anthologies. Like it or lump it, it’s definitely worth reading because it addresses some pretty fundamental questions about what an individual’s responsibilities are to the government as well as what are one’s responsibilities to resist the government’s activities.

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