Henry David Thoreau – On the duty of Civil Disobedience

Short bio: Thoreau was born in1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. He grew up in a conservative environment of genteel poverty. He was educated at Harvard, and started out as a teacher; but, it not suiting him, Thoreau turned from it to the family business of making lead pencils and serving as a general handy man for the community.

Believing that his tax money should not be used promoting programmes that he had no belief in, in 1843, Thoreau was arrested for not paying his poll tax; and, for this act of civil disobedience, he spent a night in jail (he was quite prepared to spend a lot more time for his principles, but he was chagrined to find out that one of his aunts had paid his tax bill for him). If the government (Massachusetts had just voted to return runaway slaves), «requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law … What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.» In 1845 he built a cabin at Walden Pond; he wrote of his experiences there, in his book, Walden. Like his neighbour, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau was a Transcendentalist, one who believes in the «divine sufficiency of the individual.»

Thoreau rejected authoritarianism and totalitarianism in any form. His ideas ran absolutely counter to socialism and all such ideologies that would place the state above individual rights. Thoreau was a man of «simple and high thinking», and his writings proved to have more of an impact on the men of the 20th century than the men of his own century, the 19th; for instance Gandhi became convinced by reading Thoreau of the rightness of the principle of passive resistance and civil disobedience. Thoreau, a person who considered that «time is but the stream I go a-fishing in»; a person who thought that «government is best which governs not at all»; a person who saw, everywhere about him, people who laboured «endlessly to make their lives more complex … [and who] concerned themselves only with the means and never the ends [and the worst of them] … do nothing from conviction, nothing from sincere emotion. Their morality comes from without, from the milieu in which they find themselves.» Read Thoreau, an author who felt that «a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.» Read Thoreau, an author who wrote: «The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.»

Emerson said of his friend:

«He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the state; he ate no flesh; he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.»