I wrote a similar essay over Thoreau's "Civil Disobediance." Mine, though, focuses more on the Eastern influence shining through in Thoreaus actions.


In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau presents his unique views on democracy versus the individual to a lyceum audience. Thoreau’s thesis, endlessly emphasized and restated throughout the essay, is this: “A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish to prevail through the power of the majority” (150). Rather, Thoreau takes the more Eastern point of view that the individual should be first responsible to and reliant upon themselves, reserving the right to resist unjust governments.

His point of view is only relevant, though, in direct relation with how unjust the current government is. In this area Thoreau uses slavery and the Mexican war as proof that the government is doing universal wrongs. He also presents the government’s methods of taxation as unjust and without excuse: “It (the state) may be in a great strait and not know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself, do as I do <[>. . .<]> I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society” (158). Most of Thoreau’s complaints about the government, actually, stem not precisely from its current actions but from a deep philosophical gap between Thoreau and the State.

Thoreau’s idea of “justice” seems to find its root in an ancient Vedic principle called “rita.” “In human affairs rita is propriety that makes social harmony possible. In speech rita is truth, and in interpersonal dealings it is justice” (Fenton et al. 29). Rita is not created by man or god, but simply exists in nature as the one way that creates order, a self-enforcing natural law like gravity. This predestined way to do things is a major theme in all Eastern religions, appearing as “The Way” in Taoism, “Dhyana” in Buddhism, and “the mandate of heaven” in Confucianism. All these ideas harmonize well with transcendental theory, probably because Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau, transcendentalism’s foremost proponents, were inspired by Eastern literature. Emerson referred often to the oversoul or the world soul, and wrote poems inspired by Vedanta philosophy such as “Brahman.” A fundamental principle of oneness with all things and of acceptance of change permeates both Eastern philosophy and transcendentalism. “Because of rita we have an ordered universe that undergoes change without becoming chaos: the sun follows its daily rhythm of setting and rising; the stars fade at dawn but twinkle again at dusk. Rita is a dynamic principle of order, manifesting itself in change, not rigidity” (Fenton et al. 29). This is mirrored by Thoreau’s assertion “So is all change for the better, like birth and death, which convulse the body” (153).

Adherence to self-reliance was also of great importance to the transcendentalists. Thoreau did not object to slavery or the Mexican war just to create an idle rebellion or an excuse to skip out of taxes; he was taking it as his responsibility to refuse the protection and endorsement of the government. In order to hold true to his values he would even state that “You must hire or squat somewhere and raise but a small crop and eat that soon. You must live within yourself and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs” (156). This idea of completely looking out for oneself is a central concept in Eastern thought, especially Taoism, because, in nature people have no outside help or protection to rely upon, each family must sustain itself: For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State. But if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my property and so harass me without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in outward respects (156). Even though Thoreau was risking more than just his own well-being, he would not compromise his values.

Walking the walk is an absolutely essential part of all the Eastern traditions, as well. This ties in to a facet of religion called the “prophetic function,” where the priests of a religion, most notably Taoists, are granted the authority to stand outside of society and criticize what it is doing wrong based on their spiritual legitimacy. Thoreau seems to be assuming this same function when he challenges others to be as self-reliant as he is. He did not mince words nor facilitate the sheltered security of the conformist. “If the injustice <[>. . .<]> is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, than I say break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn” (153). The most telltale sign of someone performing the prophetic function, though, is that their words actually foreshadow what happens in the future. Only a person of universal insight can succeed in this respect.

Thoreau achieved this insight when describing a trend in consciousness going on throughout America at that time: a growing level of dependency on the government. “If there were one who lived wholly without the use of money, the State itself would hesitate to demand it of him. But the rich man—not to make an invidious comparison—is always sold to the institution that makes him rich” (155). Into the present day, the state’s sway is all the more unavoidable. Land is more restricted, citizens are closely monitored, and society has raised the standard of living to such a level that most people cannot even imagine how they could sustain themselves in the wild. Similarly, and perhaps because of the government’s embrace, Thoreau’s observation of the mind-numbing complacency of his neighbors has only become more true. “I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only <[>. . .<]> that, in their sacrifices to humanity, they ran no risks, not even to their property” (160). This insincerity is even more evident in Generation X, who only rebel in the name of fashion or to protect their own right to laziness. This rise in complacency is no doubt connected to an increase in dependence on material possessions, just as Thoreau feared.

When in jail, Thoreau’s place as a mystic was perhaps most evident. When he was arrested for not paying his taxes he said “Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses” (158). By being shallow and irresponsible in its dealings, the State ironically gives Thoreau his greatest point. The State’s power to affect his physical situation matters little to him, and so his philosophy of individuality and self-reliance converged with his confrontation with government in a beautiful and metaphysical assertion: Thoreau believed all along that he had already won his struggle against his captors, because they had failed to shackle his mind.


Sources

Fenton, John Y. et al. Religions of Asia, Third edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s: New York, 1993.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. New York: Bedford, 2002.

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