Saturday, December 04, 2004

Civil Disobedience

Ahh, I've neglected to mention another of my heroes. Mr. Henry David Thoreau, my first love. Indeed I do believe he was my very first striking inspiration and I have hung to his quotes as to a security blanket; as to the first words spoken to me by someone else which reached so deeply into my own heart, as if the words had come from there to begin with. For today we will deal with Civil Disobedience, for that is the mood I am in as of late.
I'll let Henry do most of the talking, he has the panache.

"But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?--in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? 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 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."
"All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its
obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority."
"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. "
"Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. 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. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible."
"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 and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in outward respects. It will not be worth the while to accumulate property; that would be sure to go again."
"Thus the state never intentionally confronts a man's sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way
or that by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live? When I meet a government which says to me, "Your money our your life," why should I be in haste to give it my money? I may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the
machinery of society. I am not the son of the engineer. I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to nature, it dies; and so a man. "
"Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and
treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this
kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen. "
Thoreau: Works] [Civil Disobedience]

Thoreau was my first encounter with what you might call the "Rugged Individualist". I had read him a bit in school, but it was during a hiking trip (Outward Bound in NC 1995) when his words really took hold. I saw for the first and perhaps the only time, what it was like to exist outside of society; to exist for yourself. It was the first time I think that I ever caught a glimpse of my own value. I never wanted to leave there. I've held the memory close, it was and is defining for me. The words I read were not from "Civil Disobedience", they were from "Walden", but they were the words that grew into love for the man who had spoken them, such a long time before me. It is love that came from respect for a man who loved life with passion, with boldness. A man who made sure to live it, as I am desperate to do. When he speaks of Civil Disobedience, it is an act of honesty towards self. It is the statement that noone shall own him, nor take the fruits of his labor without his consent. In this instance it is because he cannot accept a state that will allow slavery. I find it particularly appropriate now, and I can think of several possible actions the current government could take which would motivate me in such a way. I really did not think it possible that we could be forced to endure the next four years in this way, but there it is.


Blogger Michael Mitchell said...

I, too, love Thoreau. His life, his work - they are an inspiration. I was first drawn to the ideas in Walden, his book on reclaiming his own life by leaving behind the conviniences and pitfalls of modern life for a self-made life in the woods behind Ralph Waldo Emerson's house. When I realized my copy of Walden included the Essay on Civil Disobedience, I fell in love with that, too. Its eloquently written, and its remarkably forward thinking. Unfortunately, not enough people are familiar with the teachings of Henry David Thoreau, but at least people like Ghandi and MLK Jr. could realize what he was talking about.

11:45 AM  

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