Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

What’s wrong with Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience?


Online Text of Civil Disobedience

In the essay Civil Disobedience (1849), Thoreau argues that an unjust government or a law to a degree that it makes one an agent of its injustice should be disobeyed; even should it be the democratic will of the majority. In the following summary entry of this classical essay, I seek to just simply outline the major passages that support Thoreau’s main argument and then very briefly critically analyze it in context of multicultural societies.

Thoreau’s main argument rests fundamentally on the conscientious right to disobey governments or laws that require you to become agents of its injustice. For Thoreau, “all men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable”.[i] Civil disobedience is the intentional public act of resisting a law or practice by subjecting oneself to the consequences of resisting that law or practice that one finds conscientiously unjust. The central criteria for justifying disobedience is exactly that: disobedience is only justified when an injustice is more than a mere part of the machinery of society, but in it requiring of you the becoming of an agent of its injustice. In these cases, Thoreau claims that a citizen should choose to disobey. Thoreau writes,

“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth,— certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn”.[ii]

The purpose of disobedience is to enact within yourself and your own actions the moral justice that should be sought. It is to make the revolution instant and complete within your actions. “When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished”.[iii]

The essay is in an important way also about the question of why citizens in general obey unjust governments. Thoreau gives multiple reasons in the essay. The first reason why we obey unjust governments is that we believe that we fundamentally cannot do without them, even if they are corrupt. In the spirit of his day, Thoreau writes,

“This American government,—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves; and, if ever they should use it in earnest as a real one against each other, it will surely split. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage”.[iv]

The argument Thoreau raises here is not merely that government is merely a tradition, or that it can be susceptible to corruption, but that government is susceptible to the subversion to a few citizens into their private instrument. It is an instrument used for private interests through not only the action of those few citizens that corrupt it but most of all also of the majority of citizens that do nothing and allow themselves to become agents of its injustice.

The second and perhaps as common as the first reason on why citizens generally obey corrupt governments is that  fear the penalties of non-compliance. Here, Thoreau adopts a sympathetic stance and understands that all citizens seek to live their lives without fear of losing everything for which they have worked for. We are in this world “not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.” Thoreau writes,

“I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for conformity”.[v]

“When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that, whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question, and their regard for the public tranquility, the long and the short of the matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences of disobedience to it to their property and families”.[vi]

In Civil Disobedience, however, Thoreau responds to this argument by reminding his readers that “[we should] not pursue [contemplations of life] sitting upon another man’s shoulders”.[vii] Thoreau argues that we do have conscientious obligations not to become agents of injustice — as he writes, “not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

The third reason why Thoreau believes that we obey corrupt governments is that most of us have a high respect for the law, simply because it is the law, that is, the law is the law. The danger is that we sometimes obey the law without concern for our conscience or any injustice that might result in our obedience.

“The lawyer’s truth is not truth, but consistency, or a consistent expediency. Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with wrong-doing. He well deserves to be called, as he has been called, the Defender of the Constitution. There are really no blows to be given by him but defensive ones. He is not a leader, but a follower.[…] Still thinking of the sanction which the Constitution gives to slavery, he says, “Because it was a part of the original compact,—let it stand.” Notwithstanding his special acuteness and ability, he is unable to take a fact out of its merely political relations, and behold it as it lies absolutely to be disposed of by the intellect,—what, for instance, it behooves a man to do here in America to-day with regard to slavery, but ventures, or is driven, to make some such desperate answer as the following, while professing to speak absolutely, and as a private man,—from which what new and singular code of social duties might be inferred?”.[viii]

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that 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. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. […] Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart”.[ix]

In this essay, Thoreau’s responds to this disposition by arguing that the purpose of the disobedience is not to enact piecemeal or even large amount of change through government, or elections and petitions, but to appeal to the moral conscience in one’s own actions that sustain injustice in government and/or of an unjust law.

“The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue to sustain it. The slight reproach to which the virtue of patriotism is commonly liable, the noble are most likely to incur. Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform. Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves,—the union between themselves and the State,—and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury? Do not they stand in the same relation to the State, that the State does to the Union? And have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting the Union, which have prevented them from resisting the State?”.[x]

I take all of these elements and quotations to form the basis of Thoreau’s main argument. In the second part of this summary entry, I want to critically review Thoreau’s arguments in the context of a multicultural society. That is to say, what do we notice when we use and reflect Thoreau’s arguments in a society that is multicultural? By what I understand by multicultural society is simply the way a society has eliminated any unjust colonial or any other type of cultural hierarchies, decentralization of hegemonic norms, and moral and accountable exercisability of power.[xi] There are two comments that I see relevant here.

First, I am unsure of what to make of the public/private relationship between the individual and the state as presented by Thoreau. I would say that it seems only fruitful when I infuse the meaning of the individual with an enlarged sense of networks of belonging and selfhood in line with MacIntyre in his work After Virtue. The problem that I want to focus is however with Thoreau’s conception of disobedience as an act that appeals to a sense of morality that is problematized or at least not widely shared and diverse in a multicultural society. I find moral dialogues in practice in multicultural societies sometimes very complex and incomprehensible depending on the different standpoints one takes — not to say that they are not important to have.

But the outward and comprehensive public expressions of moral stances are indeed important and difficult features in a multicultural society — and, increasingly so in particular with metropolitan and global centers that are self-aware or currently negotiating that diversity. Despite the increasing globalization of commerce,  multinational corporations and new technology and shared burden of radical climate change and other world challenges, contextual communications and shared horizons are difficult to obtain when what is privileged existentially and ontologically are thinly shared moral horizons wherein a diversity of moral sources are, rightly, legitimized to allow the expression of different kinds of autonomies and legitimate expressions of the self. There are no shortages at the moment of strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, appeals to the world’s conscience, appeals to limitations of national rights and human rights, movements across multiple regions that in resort to civil disobedience to upset, disturb citizens into awareness but these are increasingly more difficult and a complex challenge to understand in a integrated global and more self-conscious diversity within our cities with the current level of diversity of moral sources and worldviews.

What’s wrong with civil disobedience is that on its own it is insufficient. Acts of civil disobedience must be complimented with other efforts that can help contextualize and create the shared and perhaps thin moral horizons across diverse bases for acts of civil disobedience to exist meaningfully. This implies then complimenting acts of civil disobedience with current international tools and frameworks that exist to create the stage upon which those acts can properly occur. In addition, it also means there is a need for global cosmopolitan oriented and locally sensitive organizations needed to maintain thinly shared moral horizons while actively engaging acts of civil disobedience.

It is true that the moral objection(s) in an increasingly self-aware diverse metropolitan may very well be multi-contextual and from irreconcilable sources, however the work these organizations do to maintain these thin horizons has become vital. The shared moral horizons are more complex than they are portrayed to a reader in the mid second decade of the 21st century. These horizons contain emotional/ personal dimension as well as epistemic component to civil society that integrates diversity in more complex ways, and the full efficient use of tools that it currently has at its disposal. The thin moral realm that is built through coalitions and NGOs that helps maintain respect for autonomy, diversity in civil society which I theorize is vitally important to contextualize and understand acts of civil disobedience today. Thoreau’s essay is a wonderful text and captures I believe an exciting component for obedience in a modern state, but it is on its own insufficient.

In the next entries on Thoreau I will focus on concrete examples of civil disobedience and different types of work NGOs have undertaken to strengthen acts of civil disobedience around the world. I think that shall focus in particular in Asia with human rights and the Arctic with climate change in order to show how some of these philosophical concepts apply in practice.


[i] Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849, p.6

[ii] Ibid., pp.12-13

[iii] Ibid., p.15

[iv] Ibid., pp.3-4

[v] Ibid., p.24

[vi] Ibid., pp.16-17

[vii] Ibid., p.10

[viii] Ibid., pp.25-26

[ix] Ibid., pp.4-5

[x] Ibid., p.11

[xi] See Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

One Comment on “Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

  1. Pingback: Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience | Integrating Horizons©

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