Emotions of Play Revisited

Civil Disobedience (1): Thoreau

Thoreau Civil Disobedience, the refusal to obey a government or occupying force without resorting to violence, represents both a path to democracy for those who have no representation, and a duty to dissent when one’s ethics part company with the actions of the government. Famously embodied in the actions of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, it provides a mechanism for opposing an unjust government and instigating change. 

The modern concept begins with the author and iconoclast Henry David Thoreau, who in July 1846 refused to pay his poll tax to the local collector because of his opposition both to slavery, and to the Mexican-American war. As he later expressed on this issue: “when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact, that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”

As a result of this action, Thoreau spent the night in jail – although he was ultimately released (against his own protests!) when his aunt paid his taxes for him. The experience had a great effect upon him, and inspired him to write about the circumstances that lead him to refuse to pay his taxes, and his experience in jail, in an essay originally published in 1849 under the title Resistance to Civil Government. This essay is usually published today under the alternative name On the Duty to Civil Disobedience, a title which contrasts Thoreau’s ideas with those of William Paley, who had written on the topic of “the Duty of Civil Obedience” in his book on moral political philosophy. 

The central issue in justifying civil disobedience was whether the ethical course of action was to obey unjust laws while working to change them, or if an unjust law could be broken on ethical grounds. Thoreau asks in his seminal essay: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavour to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” and concludes in this regard that “the authority of government… is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.”

Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience was a refusal to pay taxes, and although tax resistance is an option, it often produces severe reprimand from the State, which requires tax income to operate. There are also ethical arguments against this form of resistance – firstly, that if everyone refused to pay tax over any disagreement with the Government, little or no tax could be raised, and secondly (and critically) that Government monies are used to pay for public goods such as roads, law enforcement and health care, and thus refusal to pay makes one a “free rider” (the Free Rider problem being a central issue in political philosophy). 

But whether or not Thoreau’s chosen method was desirable, his example served as an inspiration for other major figures in the history of civil disobedience, inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. in college, and serving as one of the foremost influences in the life of Mohandas Gandhi, who spearheaded the first successful application of civil disobedience on a large scale.

There is some question as to whether Thoreau himself ever used the phrase “civil disobedience” or whether this term originated from one of his editors, but irrespective of this point Thoreau is justifiably credited with sowing the seeds of one of the most transforming political ideas of the century to follow. Civil disobedience offered a novel new means for an exploited majority to overthrow their oppressors, and for a subjugated minority to attempt the same. As Thoreau himself wrote: “a minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” 

Over the course of this serial we will look at the major figures who followed after Thoreau, the key political philosophy in connection with civil disobedience, and the story behind the remarkable non-violent revolutions that followed in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. In so doing I hope to instil a sense of wonderment at what has already been achieved through non-compliance, and invoke the possibilities of what could yet be attained through its application. 

Next week: Gandhi


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"when ... a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law ..." - what could you be thinking of here?

It takes a lot of guts to follow Thoreau's example. Too much, perhaps. I admire his stance, though.

Why Theo, what makes you think I had an ulterior motive in choosing this quote? :D
We will be discussing ethics of war (and debating certain "case studies") next year. It should be interesting.

As for the courage required to follow Thoreau's example - I hope to look at this at the end of this serial. Once we've looked at examples of civil disobedience, we'll look at why people are reluctant to do the same themselves, and the ethical implications of this in political terms.

Nice to hear from you! It's been a while. :)

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