Henry David Thoreau's landmark essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" influenced such remarkable human beings as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi. King said, "I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest."
In his essay, Thoreau calls for a government "which governs least" or ideally, "which governs not at all". While that sounds like a call to anarchy, Thoreau packs in a huge disclaimer: "when men are prepared for it." And that, of course, begs the question -- Will men ever be ready for a government that doesn't need to govern them?
After assigning this essay to my AP students, I shared with them the news story about Phoebe Prince, a 15 year old girl who felt so harassed and tormented by her classmates that she committed suicide in January of this year. 6 of those students have been arraigned for leading to her death. What is equally disturbing about this situation is the fact that the adult members of the community have been harassing the school administration: the principal has even received emails condemning him to hell for not handling the Prince situation properly. We need not wonder where the teens learned their bullying techniques.
Are we ready for self-government? If the case study of this Massachusetts community is any indication, I think not.
So what are these conditions that Thoreau calls for, these terms under which "men are prepared" for a government such as he describes? First, "we should be men first, and subjects afterward." Instead of blinding bowing to the government, Thoreau claims, "The only obligation which I have the right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right." This means following the conscience. Because Thoreau is a Transcendentalist, he believes in the divinity present in each living thing. If men would just pause and listen to their souls, they would be able to follow their conscience and do what is right. Imagine if all people all over the world did this -- world peace would finally be possible.
Secondly, Thoreau calls for us to have purposeful opinions: "How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it?" If our opinions, our beliefs don't move us to action, why do we have them? If we only repeat our beliefs in our comfort zone of like-minded thinkers, what good are those opinions? While it may seem daunting to act upon our opinions, Thoreau assures us that "it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever." The journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with one step.
Alas, most of us "love better to talk about it." We don't allow our opinions and beliefs to make an impact in our daily lives. We instead, like the neighbors in Thoreau's village, "[run] no risks", and make no "sacrifices to humanity". After being jailed for a night for not paying a poll-tax he didn't agree with, Thoreau sees his community, "the State in which [he] lived" with a new clarity -- the people around him did not rock the boat, did not voice their opinions, did not question authority. If they did they would be "aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village"-- because they'd be in it with him. Instead of feeling punished by his incarceration, Thoreau recognized that while the State could attempt to punish his body, it could never reach his mind, his intellect, his divinity.
The final component for a "free and enlightened State" requires the State to "recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treat him accordingly." Therein lies a two-fold responsibility. Man must act as if he is a "higher and independent power" -- a critical thinker, a productive member of society -- and the State must treat him as such. We can't bully and harass others to get our way. We can't teach our children that such behavior is acceptable. And in turn, the government must be comprised of people who not only follow their own conscience but respect that of the layperson as well.
Written over 150 years ago, Thoreau's essay outlines an edenic democracy that the world has yet to see. Will we ever experience such a utopia? Perhaps, I suppose, "when men are prepared for it".