Notes on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

Notes on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”



    Thoreau’s extraordinary essay “Civil Disobedience” was first published in Boston in 1849, in a collection edited by Elizabeth P. Peabody called Aesthetic Papers.  The text is not narrowly but broadly “aesthetic” in the sense of involving the perceptive as well as rational powers of human beings.  As in many aesthetic treatises of the long nineteenth century, from Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters to Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Thoreau’s essay raises questions of whether and how far the free play of these faculties can be accommodated to the larger mechanisms of State or society, or else furnish a model for new socio-political arrangements altogether.  The ideal government — the government which at the beginning and end of the essay Thoreau declares his willingness (even eagerness) to swear loyalty to (e.g. 240) — is, for Thoreau, one that recognizes the individual as its foundation and necessary condition.  The aesthetic state that Thoreau describes in the soaring final paragraph is thus one that does not merely accommodate and assimilate individuals, but which provides conditions for their flourishing.  

    But as in many or most aesthetic theories of the long nineteenth century, Thoreau’s ideal State is part of a society to come, for which intermittent portents only are visible in the present.  Civil disobedience is the name that Thoreau gives to the assertion of individuality in word or deed, whenever this comes into conflict with the State.  It names a practice (voluntary or involuntary; internal or external) of standing apart from the State.  This practice can be either an action (of refusing to pay city tax, e.g.) or a habit of mind, a perspective that one brings to everyday situations where social and political consensus is not sought and appealed for, but merely and tacitly presumed.

    From the beginning of the essay Thoreau offers plenty of reasons why one would veryrationally be led to call the legitimacy of government into question or reject governments altogether as presenting impediments to the rights of individuals.  The same objections that popularly stand against standing armies count equally, as Thoreau notes, against the notion of “a standing government” (224). The latter has no more legitimacy than the former; its legitimacy has just never yet been put in question.  Government is best, Thoreau observes (and he holds this to be an opinion with near universal assent) when it operates imperceptibly; we hold it to be an anomaly and a glitch in the system when government intrudes on our notice.  Thus we should think of government as no more than a negative presence in our lives, which a properly self-regulating civil society could well do without.  The U.S. government is a notional entity that survives only to the degree that citizens respect (or don’t bother to inquire into) its Trojan horse-like appearance.  “[A] sort of wooden gun to the people themselves,” it is not built strong enough to withstand opposition, or even concerted scrutiny: “if ever they should use it…against each other, it will surely split” (224).

    A text about civil disobedience, Thoreau’s essay is also a masterful performance of it. At the same time, he pointedly differentiates the act of civil disobedience from a more incendiary and markedly less civil series of actions that may arise from contemplation of the more serious limitations of government.  With many good reasons to declare ourselves “no-government men” and work to abolish the State (225), to commit an act of civil disobedience seems rather like an act of great prudence.  Thoreau establishes the normality, necessity and obviousness of civil disobedience in thought or word or deed.  It is entirely acceptable for free-thinking individuals to hold and express treasonous thoughts as they are prompted by conscience.  It is the right — and in certain cases may be the responsibility — of the free-thinking individual to entertain such dangerous thoughts as they arise in the natural course of things.  The individual must permit these thoughts rather than seeking to stifle them; any possible curb on this capacity represents an unacceptable limitation on freedom of thought and expression.   Keats writes in a letter that one should “let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. Not a select party.” (LJK, 2.213)  The political consequences for the individual of such cast of mind are worked out in Thoreau’s essay.  


    The author of Walden is “not the ‘go a-head’ species, but its opposite pole,” wrote George Eliot in an anonymous review of 1856 (265).  Thoreau describes this same mode of life in “Civil Disobedience” as like that of being “a counter friction to stop the machine” (231).  Its principle of action is troublesome, an obstruction to the illusion of the smooth functioning of social consensus.  “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually” (239).  The elementary act of civil disobedience act consists of the mere refusal to be absorbed entirely in the State.  Since too thorough an absorption into a government stands as a threat to individuality, one can be too close to the State to see it plain:  “Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it” (241).  Thoreau notes that he spent only a single night in jail for refusal to pay tax. This fact, like that of Thoreau’s continued proximity to his mother during his experiment living in the woods at Walden, is sometimes pointed out as if it called into question the seriousness of Thoreau’s commitments.  Much as the greatest benefit of living in the woods is the perceptual awakening that it affords, however, the more significant act of civil disobedience is the shift of perspective that comes with it.  Prison, Thoreau writes, afforded “a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it”; and “When I came out of prison, I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived” (238).  One sees from inside the walls of the town jail and from outside the law the totality of relations that constitute the law and hold it provisionally in place.

    It is a question for the present whether in insisting on the priority of the individual over the citizen, Thoreau neglects other equally valid (and today more pressing) relations and forms of collective political speech, personhood, and action — or whether indeed the “private man” who acts in accordance to the dictates of his own conscience is an impediment to the achievement of political ends that may be desirable to work towards today.  Behind these questions of course is the further one of whether and how far the individualist of the nineteenth-century America is adequate to the realities of twenty-first century political life.  One problem with importing Thoreau’s model of civil disobedience into contemporary political life is that the stakes for self-assertion may have become unclear in an age when individual voices are tirelessly asserted in various public fora.

    To his great credit Thoreau does not assume the preexistence of a common arena for meaningful political participation.  It is not enough to put a stake down and call any space (physical or virtual) a commons — as if, in an updated version of a Rousseauist fantasy, there were nothing more to a participatory democracy than the spontaneous consent of the governed to participate collectively therein, and to respect the rules of law (or the terms of service) that have been established for that place.  He perceives that a government worth the name must be the site of continual contest from within (if not also from without).  The commons is brought into being through periodic border raids upon it.  These interruptions to State power are motivated by crises of conscience from one among a minority who not only perceive things otherwise, but who speak and write of the things that they perceive.  Civil disobedience is an act that brings to visibility an existing relation of conflict between the interests of the State and those of the individual.  It is necessary to the State and to the formation of individuals for roughly the same reason:  as the integrity of the state is tested but also realized by those who break the laws of the state, the integrity of the individual is tested and ultimately asserted in acts of civil disobedience.  

    The “right healthful caustics” (Sidney) of civil disobedience may as Thoreau notes “convulse the body” of the State in the course of renewing it (232).  Some of the most impressively Shelleyan passages of Thoreau’s essay are dedicated to exploring the idea that civil disobedience introduces a necessary, if dangerous, element of the unpredictable into the (under normal circumstances all too regular) affairs of government and civic life.  One does not necessarily know the direction in which these actions tend; though principled and motivated by conscience, their effects cannot be known or calculated in advance.  “Action from principle, — the perception and the performance of right, — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with any thing which was” (231).  Civil disobedience tends in the direction of aliveness, where the presiding movement towards renewal may be the most important thing that can be said about it.  

May 12, 2013

Dedicated to my mother Georgeanne Jackson, public school teacher in SAD no. 22 in Maine.  


Citations from Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, ed. Owen Thomas (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966).