Civil Disobedience By Thoreau Essay
Philosophers, historians, authors, and politicians have spent centuriespondering the relationship between citizens and their government. It is aquestion that has as many considerations as there are forms of government and itis rarely answered satisfactorily. A relatively modern theorist, author HenryThoreau, introduced an idea of man as an individual, rather than a subject, bythoroughly describing the way a citizen should live many of his works. Heindirectly supplements the arguments he presents in his essay Civil Disobediencethrough a comprehensive selection of adages found in his other works.
Inparticular, the phrases “A simple and independent mind does not toil at thebidding of any prince” and “To be awake is to be alive. I have nevermet a man who is quite awake” support many of the arguments in CivilDisobedience because they help to explicate the complex ideas Thoreau presents.
The phrase “A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding ofany prince” regards the responsibilities of a man to his ownconsciousnessit is a duty that can not be revoked by any form of tyrant.
Rather than hinting at a type of anarchy, this statement merely describes eachmans duty to performing justice in all his actions. This does not refer toany “mans duty… to devote himself to the eradication of any, even themost enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him;but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it nothought longer, not to give it practically his support” (681). The term”simple” does not refer to an underdeveloped sense of morality; itdescribes a state of mind in which the concept of justice is so defined thatcontradictions cannot exist. To toil, as it is presented in this quotation,means to sacrifice ideals for the sake of conformity or law. The only real powerthe State holds over any individual is the promise of brute force; it”never intentionally confronts a mans sense, intellectual or moral, butonly his body, his senses” (687). Therefore, many acts the State requireswill be unjustthey can and will force a man to slave for the sake of anordeal he does not believe in. As Thoreau notes in Civil Disobedience, “awise man will only be useful as a man” (678). In essence, Thoreau believesthat a man who toils at any ruling institutions bidding simply because it bidhim to do so sacrifices his own facilities as a human being. He then becomesnothing more than a man put “on a level with wood and earth and stones…
Commanding no more respect than men of straw, or a lump of dirt” (678).
Another quotation that helps to explicate Thoreaus Civil Disobedience is”To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quiteawake.” In this phrase, Thoreau uses the term “awake” as aneuphemism for being fully aware of ones concept of right and fully in controlof ones moral and physical existence. Understandably, people who areconsistently awake, in this sense of the word, are hard to find: “There arenine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man” (680).
Also, the fact that Thoreau has “never met a man who was quite awake”implies that fully conscious individuals have difficulty existing in modernsociety. In fact, Thoreau believes that “no man with a genius forlegislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of theworld” (692). Perhaps, by the word “awake,” and its equation with”alive,” Thoreau is also referring to the ability to fulfill his ownmission: “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place tolive in, but to live in it, be it good or bad” (683). Although this conceptis not a particularly unique one, it is nearly impossible to fulfillcompletelybut to fulfill it partially is useless. As a living being, one must”cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your wholeinfluence” (684). To truly be alive, one must be consciously satisfied withevery passing moment. Through his conscientious support of every facet of hisphilosophy, Thoreau effectively proves his statements regarding citizenship andgovernment. He remains consistent to nearly every idea he presents and thereforesurrounds them with a seriousness that cannot be ignored.
BibliographyThoreau, Henry. “Civil Disobedience.” Elements of Argument: A textand Reader. Ed. Annette T. Rottenberg. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s,2000. 463-466.