Thoreau and civil disobedience

On the 23rd or 24th of July 1846, Henry David Thoreau was stopped by the Concord (MA) tax collector and asked to pay his poll tax. Thoreau refused, and as a result ended up in jail. He was released the next day, when an anonymous person paid the tax on his behalf, but Thoreau wasn't thankful at all, he was angry. The episode became a famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) example of civil disobedience, and eventually led Thoreau to write an essay about it, first published with the title "Resistance to Civil Government" in 1849, as part of Elizabeth Peabody's "Aesthetic Papers."

Previously, I have defended Thoreau against Hanna Arendt's criticism (as articulated by Katie Fitzpatrick in Aeon magazine) of his supposedly self-absorbed and ineffective approach to social activism. Here I wish to examine "Resistance to Civil Government" a bit more closely, partly in light of what seem to me striking similarities between Thoreau's take and the Stoic view of social justice.

Thoreau begins with a declaration that, in modern terms, would put him squarely into the libertarian camp (for which, honestly, I don't have a lot of sympathy): 

I heartily accept the motto, 'That government is best which governs least,' and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.

It is, however, immediately clear that he referring chiefly to the US Government's foreign policy in 1846, and particularly to the Mexican war that was unfolding at the time. Indeed, he qualifies his initial statement in this manner: 

To speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.

Hard to disagree with such a call. Thoreau then begins to examine the relationship between individual citizens and their government, as well as the relationship between morality and the law:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? 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.

Here he begins to sound like a Stoic, an influence, as it turns out, common among to other American transcendentalists. As is well known, one of the frequent criticisms of Stoicism is that it does not articulate a social policy, being by nature a personal philosophy. I don't think there is as sharp a distinction between social and personal philosophy as people influenced by utilitarianism or Kantian deontology (as opposed to virtue ethics) seem to think, and it appears to me that Thoreau is moving in the same direction. I have argued this explicitly on several occasions in the case of Stoicism: Stoic philosophy, for instance, does not articulate an explicit political program that includes, say, feminism (in the general sense of equal rights for women) or environmentalism. And yet a very good argument can be made that Stoic principles do entail feminism as well as, for instance, environmentally-friendly approaches like vegetarianism. (And no, this isn't just my "liberal bias." For one thing, I have argued both cases in details. For another, I'm not even a vegetarian. Though I ought to be.)

Thoreau sounds uncomfortably modern when he asks:

How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also. ... There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them.

Similarly today, in the era of Trump, it is hard not to feel complicit, by inaction (or little action) in the mayhem that Mr. Trump and his associates are carrying out against American institutions, what little social net that the US has, civil liberties, and so forth. Not to mention the damage they are causing to the rest of the world, with inane decisions about North Korea, Israel, and, of course, the big elephant in the room: complete inaction on climate change.

We may take comfort in the fact that we at least vote the right way when election comes, but Thoreau is reasonably skeptical of this easy way out, immediately proceeding to forcefully remind us of our shared hypocrisy:

Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. ... The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes war.

What, then, is his suggestion? Here is where the concept of civil disobedience takes a clear form:

I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the [government] machine. ... I meet this American government, or its representative, the State government, directly, and face to face, once a year -- no more -- in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it. ... Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. ... This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.

This is certainly admirable, and if more people followed suit, they would definitely have an impact, things would change. In modern terms, however, the available options are limited only by activists' imagination. Here is a good number of historical examples, including: people acting as a human shield to protect radio and television stations from Soviet tanks during the Singing Revolution of 1991 in Estonia; the 1919 strike against the British occupation force in Egypt by students, lawyers, and postal, telegraph, tram and railways workers; hunger strikes in France in 1972 to (successfully, as it turned out) oppose the extension of an existing military training base; and so on and so forth, including of course peaceful resistance movements in India and South Africa.

A bit later on in the essay, Thoreau sounds more overtly Stoic, and specifically not far in sentiment from Seneca:

The rich man -- not to make any invidious comparison -- is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue.

Compare this with:

Money never made a man rich; on the contrary, it always smites men with a greater craving for itself. (Letters CXIX.9)

And also:

Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough. (Letters II.6)

A few pages later Thoreau echoes Epictetus:

As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body [by putting me in jail].

Compare with:

'I will throw you into prison.' 'Correction – it is my body you will throw there.' (Discourses I, 1.24)

And even more interesting is this passage:

I think sometimes, Why, this people mean well, they are only ignorant; they would do better if they knew how; ... [But] this is no reason why I should do as they do, or permit others to suffer much greater pain of a different kind.

Again, Epictetus comes to mind:

Whenever anyone criticizes or wrongs you, remember that they are only doing or saying what they think is right. They cannot be guided by your views, only their own; so if their views are wrong, they are the ones who suffer insofar as they are misguided. I mean, if someone declares a true conjunctive proposition to be false, the proposition is unaffected, it is they who come off worse for having their ignorance exposed. (Enchiridion 42)

In Stoic terms, this is the controversial concept of amathia, the Socratic notion that people do evil because they are unwise, not because they actually want to. A number of things follow from it: that we should pity those who do bad things, because they don't know better (echoes of Christianity too, of course); that we should try to teach them or, failing that, bear with them (as Marcus Aurelius says in Meditations IX.11); and that we should attempt to redress their wrongs, on the basis that we know better than they do. It is this last bit, the call to action, that is often ignored by critics of both Stoicism and, surprisingly, American transcendentalism.

Whether approached from the transcendentalist or the Stoic perspective (or the Confucian one, as Thoreau does mention "the Chinese philosopher" a couple of times), the issue of how and when to effectively engage in civil disobedience is a difficult one. First off, of course, one needs to make sure that one's moral compass is working properly, so that one doesn't "resist" things that ought not to be resisted (like, say, a government pursuing a vigorous environmentally sensible policy). Second, there is the issue of how much time and effort one is willing to spend in the pursuit of civic minded disobedience. Even Thoreau says in his essay that he came into the world "not chiefly to make it a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad" (which, incidentally, is another nod to Stoicism). Third, one needs to consider the effectiveness of one's actions. Again as Thoreau acknowledges, one person refusing to pay taxes, or engaging in a hunger strike, does not make a difference. At least, not directly. Although, as Epictetus reminds us (Discourses I.2.22), the "purple," meaning the unusually virtuous, example stands out to inspire others, even if he may fail in the immediate.

There are, of course, no universally applicable rules here. Each of us has to use her judgment to arrive at the best course of action. But looking at what people like Thoreau and the Stoics did provides us with models to pattern our own thoughts and behaviors to nudge the world toward a better place.

Tier Benefits
Recent Posts