Thoreau : Civil Disobedience (Summary) essay

 Civil Disobedience Summary : Thoreau

Que. Write a summary of Thoreau's essay Civil Disobedience.


Que. Bring out Thoreau's views on government.

Introduction : Henry David Thoreau :-

Henry David Thoreau, a leading transcendentalist, was an American thinker, poet, philosopher and an essayist. He is best known for his attacks on slavery and the American social institutions. He was tremendously influenced by Ralf Waldo Emerson, another American transcendentalist. Through Emerson, he was introduced to the idea of transcendentalism.

Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau Civil Disobedience Summary essay
Born July 12, 1817, US
Died May 06, 1862, US
School Transcendentalism
Interest Ethics, poetry, religion, politics, biology, philosophy, history
Essays Civil disobedience, Slavery in Massachusetts, life without principles
Notable Ideas Abolitionism, tax resistance, development criticism, civil disobedience, conscientious objection, direct action, environmentalism, anarchism
Era 19th century philosophy
Influences Indian philosophy, Aristotle, Emerson, Darwin
Influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Leo Tolstoy, John f. Kennedy, Walt Whitman
         Transcendentalism is the central philosophy in the works of Thoreau. He delivered many lectures which attacked the government's unjust encroachment onto the rights and will of the people e.g. fugitive slave law. Thoreau is best known for his lecture, which was later published as an essay Civil Disobedience. His another famous work is the book Walden.
           Apart from Emerson, another sources of influence for Thoreau were the Indian philosophy, Pindar, Aristotle, Homer, Darwin etc. Thoreau's philosophy enjoyed large-scale influence both within America and abroad. Most famously Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King Jr. were greatly inspired by his philosophy of civil disobedience.

इस आर्टिकल को हिन्दी में पढ़ने के लिए यहां क्लिक करें (To read this article in hindi follow this link): Summary of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience in hindi.

Context: Civil Disobedience :-

Thoreau is sometimes referred to as an anarchist, though it is not true. He believed in less governance. He refused to pay poll tax as a gesture of his disapproval towards the Government, which was involved in mexican-american war of 1846-48. He believed that the war would extend slavery into the newly acquired territories. 

He was sent to the jail for one night for his act of disobedience of government's law. This event prompted him to write civil disobedience. It was first delivered as a lecture on the subject 'On the relation of the individual to the state' at the Concord Lyceum in January 1848. Later, it was published  under the title 'Resistance to Civil Government ' by Elizabeth Peabody in Aesthetic Papers. Further later, it was published under the title Civil Disobedience and then reprinted many times.

The lecture was delivered in the context of the two major issues debated at the time, the slavery and the mexican-american war. The two issues are the central thought of contention in this essay. Given the ongoing industrialization in the north, slavery increasingly began to be perceived as a major concern by northerners. By the time 1850s, a growing numbers of northerners displayed anti-slavery sentiments. In such a time, the passing of fugitive slave law (a slavery friendly law) prompted many Americans to protest against the government in the form of civil disobedience.

Slavery was later abolished in 1865 when the north won the civil war (1861-64) in America. It was abolished by an act passed by Congress in January 1865 and ratified in December 1865.

Summary: Civil Disobedience by Thoreau:-

In his civil disobedience, Thoreau attacks the social institutions in America and its dictates such as slavery and mexican-american war. Thoreau's civil disobedience asserts the need for the man to follow his own conscience over the dictates of law. 

Thoreau opens his lecture with his displeasure towards American government. He starts it with the maxim, "that government is best which governs least". He espouses the role of government to be limited. Government's role is to act as a mean to achieve ends. It should not intrude upon the rights of men. But government has failed to prove its viability. It is susceptible to unjust and corrupt practices and thereby creating hindrances in the progress of men. He takes up Mexican-american war, as it doesn't reflect upon the greater will of the people.

Thoreau argues that government as an institution by no mean possesses the legitimate and moral view, it only holds legality for it is the viewpoint of the strongest group. He takes up slavery and mexican-american war, which can not be termed as the legitimate viewpoints only for they are supported by state, the strongest institution. He calls men to rule their own conscience. He doesn't permit government to dictate upon people's will. 

Thoreau's distrust towards the government stems from the tendency of the latter to be perverted and abused. Government inherently lends to the oppressive practices since it enables a few men to impose their will on the majority. He terms the government as an agent of injustice and who is perverted.

Thoreau exalts American people to do what they believe is right. A man has obligation to act according to the dictates of his conscience even if it goes against the majority will, presiding leadership, laws and the society itself. He asks them to not lend support to the government for its undemocratic and unjust purposes. 

The resistance is the highest form of patriotism. It demonstrates the desire not to subvert the government but to build a better one in long term. If an unjust government is not to be directly resisted, a man of true conviction should seize to lend its support to it. This could be an indirect support in the form of taxes. He should refuse to pay the taxes to the government for its unjust causes. Tax dollars enable the continuation of oppressive government policies. 

Government draws its authority from the people. People should withdraw their support from the government and risk being thrown into the jails. Forced to keep all men in prison or abolish slavery; quickly exhausted of its resources, the state would choose the latter. He mentions his own action of refusing to pay poll tax and was thrown into the jail for one night. He argues that if one's conscience is free, he is free everywhere; avoiding the dictates of laws that are against his will.

Thoreau doesn't advocate anarchy or the complete overthrow of government. He only espouses the withdrawal of support until a better government is established. He can not be termed as an anti-government; no wholesome rejection of government is recommended by him. He indeed is willing to support some welfare policies of the government. He advocates the change through democratic means.

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