Thoreau's Civil Disobedience espouses the need to prioritize one's conscience over the dictates of laws. It criticizes American social institutions and policies, most prominently slavery and the Mexican-American War.
Thoreau begins his essay by arguing that government rarely proves itself useful and that it derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because they hold the most legitimate viewpoint. He contends that people's first obligation is to do what they believe is right and not to follow the law dictated by the majority. When a government is unjust, people should refuse to follow the law and distance themselves from the government in general. A person is not obligated to devote his life to eliminating evils from the world, but he is obligated not to participate in such evils. This includes not being a member of an unjust institution (like the government). Thoreau further argues that the United States fits his criteria for an unjust government, given its support of slavery and its practice of aggressive war.
Thoreau doubts the effectiveness of reform within the government, and he argues that voting and petitioning for change achieves little. He presents his own experiences as a model for how to relate to an unjust government: In protest of slavery, Thoreau refused to pay taxes and spent a night in jail. But, more generally, he ideologically dissociated himself from the government, "washing his hands" of it and refusing to participate in his institutions. According to Thoreau, this form of protest was preferable to advocating for reform from within government; he asserts that one cannot see government for what it is when one is working within it.
Civil Disobedience covers several topics, and Thoreau intersperses poetry and social commentary throughout. For purposes of clarity and readability, the essay has been divided into three sections here, though Thoreau himself made no such divisions.
Thoreau believes that people should not participate in injustice but that they do not have to actively promote a more just world. What is the difference between these two concepts, and why does Thoreau make this moral distinction?
Thoreau sees a moral distinction between failing to prevent an injustice and actually causing an injustice. Consider an example. Thoreau argues that the United States' invasion of Mexico is immoral and that Americans who support the government with their person (as soldiers) or property (through taxes) are complicit in that injustice. He would further say that a person should go to jail rather than be responsible for that invasion. However, imagine a case in which another country was invading Mexico, but that by offering himself up as some sort of hostage and allowing himself to be imprisoned, he could stop that invasion. Thoreau would argue that while it would be perfectly moral to go to jail in this case, he would not be required to do so. As a human being, he may legitimately have other ends or goals that require him to be out of jail. It is not his job to promote the best world possible by any means necessary. All that can be asked of a person is that he not dirty his own hands with injustice. Once this requirement is fulfilled, each individual should decide for himself what to do with his life. This distinction is rooted in Thoreau's belief that individuals should look inward for how they should live their lives. A person's primary duty is to be true to himself--to act with integrity and to pursue personal moral goals.
Is Thoreau's conception of civil disobedience compatible with democratic government? Why or why not?
Civil disobedience is somewhat at odds with democratic government, but it can be argued that it is not fully incompatible with it. The tension with democracy is fairly obvious: democracy only works when a community is able to pass laws with the understanding that all will abide by what the majority desires. Thoreau completely rejects the idea that a person should ever compromise or tolerate a policy he or she did not want. While this is feasible in the case of a few individuals, if Thoreau's approach is generalized, then society would fall apart. However, there is still some sense in which civil disobedience is compatible with democracy. First, Thoreau is not advocating that people simply deny the existence of unjust laws. Thoreau says that protesters will likely have to pay for the consequences for their actions. This will force society to decide whether it is willing to have all of its just citizens in jail. And, if it is willing to allow this, then jail is the only place for good persons to be. Thoreau, then, does not recognize the moral authority of unjust laws (and he, therefore, encourages people to violate them), but he does accept their legal authority (and he, thus, accepts that he may be put in jail). Secondly, while Thoreau's principle is dangerous if universalized, it is much more benign if people are violating only unjust laws. For unjust laws are usually themselves undemocratic. Unjust laws disenfranchise people or don't recognize due process or place unfair burdens on certain segments of the population. It is a paradox of democracy that democratic institutions can produce laws that violate democratic principles. It remains debatable whether this paradox undermines the democratic process as a whole.
What is Thoreau's opinion on wealth and consumption? Why does he say that the rich are less likely to practice civil disobedience?
Thoreau is highly critical of materialism and consumption. He argues that when people have a lot of wealth they begin to concentrate on how to spend their money, instead of on how they should live their lives. Secondly, rich people, because they have much more than most people, also have much more to lose by practicing civil disobedience. Furthermore, in order to be able to make money, a person must play along with the existing institutions. It is, therefore, much harder for the wealthy consumer to take a critical stance about the government. Thoreau's stern stance on wealth reflects some of his own values, most clearly seen in his exercise in "simple living" on Walden Pond. Thoreau was a supporter of a simple life lived close to nature and clearly thought that this lifestyle was most conducive to individualism and self-reliance. Thus, in his essay, Thoreau condemns a wealthy lifestyle because he believes it incompatible with civil disobedience but also because it goes against his own more general personal values.
What might Thoreau think about the role of government in today's society? (In particular, think about the modern welfare state and the military complex.)
Thoreau asks rhetorically, "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?" How would you answer this question? Is compromise on moral issues a necessary part of living with other people?
How does Thoreau justify the moral need for civil disobedience? What principles does he rely on in his justification?
Many leaders (Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.) have used Thoreau's ideas on civil disobedience as the guiding force of political movements. Is such a use of these ideas consistent with Thoreau's skepticism about politics? Which (if any) of Thoreau's ideas are valuable in the context of political activism? Which do not pertain?
In what ways is Thoreau's essay based on the concepts of individualism and self- reliance?
Thoreau combines his arguments about why people should practice civil disobedience with personal anecdotes and discussions specific to his own time and place. Is this a rhetorically useful approach? Why or why not?
Would you describe Thoreau as optimistic or pessimistic about people's ability to improve the world? Explain.