Thoreau’s essay called “Civil Disobedience” is a well known philosophical work that suggests a deeper understanding of human rights and freedoms. This work is truly progressive for the time when it was written this is why it still attracts the attention of the public nowadays. Besides, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” explores the subjects and issues that still worry the society of the present days. For example, the author speaks about the rights and privileges of the governments and their almost unlimited power within the state.
This issue is highly popular when in several counties of the world there are civil uprisings and mass protests directed against the acting political leaders and fighting for the right of the citizens that feel repressed and depowered. Besides, the contemporary world regularly faces domestic anarchist movements in various countries, these movements encourage the citizens to disobey the rules of the government and act against them, ruining the system established in the states.
Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” is an encouragement to act against the system and get rid of powerful governments, it also is filled with elements of utopist thinking and even though it elaborates on the popular in the contemporary world ideas, it does not suggest rational explanation of what kind of social order should occur as a replacement of political powers and governments.
Today, Thoreau is known as the author of one of the most influential and well known tracts exploring a political topic written by an American person. Thoreau was a famous protester against the practice of slavery in the United States. He openly expressed his detesting attitude towards slavery and his disrespect towards the government that allowed it. In order to express his opinion Thoreau decided to stop paying taxes and was sent to a jail, where he spent only one day because some other person paid his taxes.
Commenting on his experience of imprisonment, the philosopher mentioned that while he was behind bars he still felt freer than most of the people that were not in jail. Thoreau’s tax withdrawal was meant as a demonstration of his lack of desire to obey the unjust and unfair government.
Thoreau showed that he did not want to cooperate with the system that supported slavery in the Southern states and also generated and approved the law about fugitive slaves, which empowered the slave owners to search for their fugitive slaves, catch them and bring them back to plantations. In a way, Thoreau’s personal protest that resulted in his imprisonment was a call for the other citizens to join him and to refuse to work for the unjust government and to stop supporting the abusive political system.
Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” was written as a reaction to his imprisonment in 1846 (McElroy, par. 13). He created his essay to explain his personal position towards the rights of the citizens and the powers and privileges given by them to the government. He wrote, “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also” (Thoreau, par. 7).
In his essay Thoreau points out that no nation was obliged to follow the rules established by the unjust government and that people had a right to rebel against the political injustice and change the system. Thoreau states that such workers as army, jailers and constables are machines that blindly serve to the government supporting and protecting the established political regimes and “they have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs” (par. 5).
Basically, the author identifies the people that serve the government as another kind of slaves, the willing slaves. The philosopher writes that unjust political forces are not of divine origin, and not the forces of nature, so one can resist them and count on a positive result or some change. This means that if the rain or the break of dawn cannot be stopped, the political powers, on the contrary, can be eliminated and their negative impacts can be averted.
Thoreau’s statement saying, “that government is best which governs not at all” is the basis of his utopist ideas, because he continues stating that he believes that one day human society will be ready to have that kind of government in reality (par. 1). According to Thoreau, the root of the issue of slavery was not the unjust government and not the unfair politicians from the Southern states, but the citizens that supported that order of things.
Thoreau mentioned that a just government is not enough to establish a just society. In order for everyone to live in peace, safety and equality, all of the members of the society need to be just, fair and honest, which is practically impossible. In my opinion, the utopian ultimately fair society, where all the members are driven by the same noble ideas and principles of mutual help and unconditional generosity, is the only society that does not need a government or any kind of control from above.
Versetti noticed that the beliefs of Thoreau were very similar to the ones of Locke, who taught that people have a right to rebel against their governments as soon as even a shadow of tyranny occurs (par. 1). According to the principle of social agreement, the society shared its freedoms and willingly gave up some of them so that a single ruling power appeared and could establish and maintain order and law.
In the contemporary world many nations disagree with the work of their governments, some even initiate rebellions against them. The ultimate goal of the majority of such rebellions is to establish the rule of the people also known as “democracy”. Thoreau spoke about the ultimate democracy where the people of the country work out the strategy and the political course of the state. In reality, such phenomenon is likely to lead to anarchy and chaos.
In “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau theorizes about the needlessness of unjust governments and the utopist ideas of perfect society that does not need control. He encourages the reader to oppose the unfair political regime and rise against it, yet he never mentions what kind of disorder is likely to appear once an imperfect society loses its leaders. According to Thoreau, some day our society might be ready to live without the government, but for this to happen every member of the society has to be equally honest and generous, which is improbable.
Thoreau describes his attempt to rise against the government, he says that a better effect could have been achieved if more people joined his protest. What he does not mention is that in any society there will always be a repressed and dissatisfied minority, so no ruling power will ever be able to please absolutely everyone.
McElroy, Wendy. Henry Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience’. 2005.
Thoreau, Henry. Civil Disobedience. 1849.
Versetti, Angel. Civil Disobedience – a Threat, an Instrument or a Sacred Right? – Comparative Analysis of John Locke’s Second Trestise of Government and Niccolo Machiavelli’s the Prince and Discourses of the Livy. 2012.