Henry David Thoreau: Concerning Civil Disobedience

ThoreauAmid the tsunami of political rhetoric that threatens to annihilate us all, my mind forever returns to Henry David Thoreau.  We have so much government and so many laws they we can no longer do the right thing.  We are merely forced to do whatever the majority – if it is even possible to define ‘the majority’ – insists we do for its good.

 Henry David Thoreau wrote

 “That government is best which governs not at all.”


“[The government] does not keep the country free.  It does not settle the West.  It does not educate.  The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more; if the government had not sometimes got in its way.”


“I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”


“Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but [where] conscience [decides right and wrong]?  I think we should be men first and subjects afterward.  It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.  The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.  It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience, but a corporation of conscientious me is a corporation with a conscience.  Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of the respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.  A common and natural result of an undue respect for laws is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, power-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences”


“He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.”


“Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  [The state] is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength.  I was not born to be forced… If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.”

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  1. Brad, I think you nail what Thoreau was describing, and you, Gene, in you post today regarding beasts. There is a natural rhythm in this world; we have been told what it is, yet we constantly try to grasp something other than it. I find, by avoiding It, life is increasingly turbulent and chaotic; embracing It, even the pain inflicted by man is tolerable.

  2. Thoreau challenges us today to do what we know to be right. He spent jail time due to his view of the Mexican – American War being immoral. How will we, as individuals, respond to what we know to be immoral today?

    1. Great question, Greg. That is exactly what we face as individuals. Each of us confronts the choice to do the right thing, not what people tell us is the right thing, but what our human nature tells us is the right thing. What would the world be today without men of courage like Mandela, Gandhi, King, Jr…

    2. I didn’t catch on to Thoreau until later in my life–being 30 I feel I found him early enough! The problem I see with my generation is that everybody picks a side and does not view issues or events through a lens that allows individual interpretation. The current GOP debates are a great example when you look at how much hate is thrown back and forth. Then it becomes Obama vs Romney, or possibly Santorum (though doubtful), and we will have two presidential candidates who are verbally attempting to divide us as opposed to unite us, leading to more hate, more “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and less unification by doing what is morally right.

      1. Truly a good comment. Too much hate mail crosses the Internet every day. I am NOT an Obama supporter, nor am I a Muslim. Regardless, I detest the falsehoods that people feel entitled to spread on both Obama and Muslims. Shame on us. Let TRUTH reign.