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Henry David Thoreau: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience Essay (Review)

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Updated: Jun 10th, 2022

Individualism is a moral, social and political view that stresses self-reliance and independence and promotes the furtherance of one’s goals and desires. It also goes against some of society and the state’s outlook and is opposed to statism and collectivism which is that of conforming to the community and national goals.

To that effect, it also opposes tradition and religion or any kind of moral standard that is coming from the external environment that limits and restricts an individual’s freedom of choice (Individualism). This paper looks at Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience from an individualist viewpoint and sees the extent to which he adapts this in this work as related with other pieces of works also taking the same stance.

This is a relevant topic because Thoreau was such a complex writer whose works gave us a better understanding of the nuances of his character. Here was a man who thought deeply about a lot of things and related everyday life to the furtherance of truth and justice. Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience lets each individual speak as to “what kind of government would command his respect and that will be one step toward obtaining it.” Thoreau has the notion that the government values men not as creative individuals but as objects of their whims and caprices. Thoreau “believed that man should go one step further by voicing openly his disdain for injustice and intolerance.” (L’Herrou, Paul 1998).

In fact, Thoreau went a step ahead by not only expounding on the political issues and relating them to the issues of his time. He declares unabashedly, “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 we should be men first, and subjects afterward.” Here he is bordering on developing a respect for the right of individuals rather than that of law, arguing that it is people’s obligation to do what is right.

Thoreau begins this early on in Civil Disobedience as he agrees with the motto, “That government is best which governs least.” One surmises then that the government and all its powers are often abused and no longer represent the will of the people. (Sparknotes). Thoreau believes that changes come from the character of the people and this is where his ideas point to the individualist perspective – the looking at oneself – the working on the self so that changes will naturally flow out to one’s environment.

Henry David Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” to justify the actions he took against the government that spent him in jail and the moral reasoning behind his logic. “The more money, the less virtue.”(Thoreau, David Henry) For Thoreau, breaking unjust laws and being independent are precedents in transforming America into a better place. Thoreau’s call for change is by spreading his ideas and influencing others to refuse to surrender to the consciousness of the majority and the state and instead, break the unjust laws that the majority supports.

The important thing is to act independently: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think… the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Here Emerson contrasts the individual to society—”the crowd.” Thoreau fought for the rights of the individual and his right to be heard.

He ends “civil disobedience” by saying. “There will never be a 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” (Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, and Other Writings. “Civil Disobedience,” Bantam: New York, 1984. P. 104). Indeed, while Emerson urged Americans to be unfettered by traditions, “to have an original relationship to the universe”, Henry David Thoreau went a step further in his advocacy of the individual conscience. He thus began the modern tradition of civil disobedience.

The case of Gandhi comes to mind. He was most understood by the higher officials of his land, yet he was great in his people’s minds and hearts. That is what constitutes a true leader. Leaders can motivate, inspire, be led, and lead while making the environment safe from risks and mistakes. Leaders also demonstrate the ability to lead by example, ethically, morally, and purposefully. Leaders regularly communicate the vision and empower the culture within the organization.

They continue to build trust and lead the challenges of a constantly changing workplace and society. And most of the time, great leaders are indeed misunderstood. Leaders understand that it is necessary to incorporate balance not only in the lives of others but their own as well. This encourages leaders to think about life and work differently.

For some, the individualist viewpoint is most apparent. For example, the issues of forming one’s own opinions in light of the social events came into existence as he encouraged people to stand up for their principles and what they believe to be true.

Another writer, Emerson, exhibited these viewpoint pens, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist… It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own, but the great man (or woman) is one who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” (L’Herrou, Paul 1998). The same kind of individualist viewpoint came in “Self-Reliance,” Emerson writes, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines…

Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you said today… The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. (Those were the days of sailing ships.) See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.” (L’Herrou, Paul 1998). Emerson does not advocate complacency and passivity here. The consistency can even be a disadvantage according to him, issues which Thoreau shares with him in his work.

In recent years, many analysts, inspired by post-structuralism and postmodern arguments and insights, have begun to argue that individualism itself is a construction, that, indeed, the human self is in many ways nothing more than a fiction, and that it is above all what might be called the Renaissance representations of the self as an individual, expressive subject that requires explanation. (The Discovery of the Individual)

Some scholars have offered tormenting insights into the play of social forces and ideological currents on Renaissance texts and Renaissance selves. While others have argued that the accounts of these scholars are paradoxically and profoundly historical. Further, it was argued that the analytical strategies tend to view the formation of the Renaissance self from within a synchronic framework, one frozen in time, with little sense of the operation of more slowly developing historical –or diachronic– forces on the process of what has come to be called “Renaissance self-fashioning.” On the other hand, their analyses also tend to be based on a totalizing view of politics and power in the Renaissance world –a view that leaves little room for oppositional or dissenting voices. (The Discovery of the Individual)

Accordingly, some scholars try to correct such a notion by offering an alternative approach to a salient aspect of the history of the formation of Renaissance selves. In particular, it is suggested to examine the effort on both theoretical and practical levels during the Renaissance period to redefine certain moral categories relating to sincerity and prudence and the relation of these redefinitions to the formation of an increased sense of subjectivity and individualism in the Renaissance. (The Discovery of the Individual)

The study self in the seventeenth-century England cautioned that ‘individualism is a multidimensional phenomenon, an amalgam of practices and values with no discernible center. A variety of forces –social, economic, political, intellectual– contributed to its making, each one of which was paramount at some time or another, either separately or jointly with others. Thus a single account of individualism cannot possibly represent its development, its contours, and its functions. Nonetheless, the evidence gathered does suggest a shift in moral vocabulary played a significant role in the construction of new notions of individualism in the Renaissance world. (The Discovery of the Individual)

Oversimplified as it is, it is nevertheless true to the idea that Renaissance Humanists placed immense emphasis upon the dignity of man and upon the prolonged possibilities of human life in this world. For the most part, it regarded human beings as social creatures who could create meaningful lives only in association with other social beings. (General Characteristics of the Renaissance)

In the Renaissance, the main cultural values were usually associated with active involvement in public life, in moral, political, and military action, and in service to the state. Some of the most important Humanists, like Erasmus, were Churchmen. Also, individual achievement, breadth of knowledge, and personal aspiration (as personified by Doctor Faustus) were valued. The concept of the “Renaissance Man” refers to an individual who, in addition to participating actively in the affairs of public life, possesses knowledge of and skill in many subject areas. Such figures included Leonardo Da Vinci and John Milton, as well as Francis Bacon, who had declared, “I have taken all knowledge to be my province.” (General Characteristics of the Renaissance)

Two of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most famous sayings are “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and “to be great is to be misunderstood”. The ideas about the individual expressed in the statement “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” In this saying from Self-Reliance Emerson posits that one has to live in the present and not always look at the past.

In effect, he is saying that when there is a regularity to things, then that is the work of little creativity. As in almost all of his work, he promotes individual experience over the knowledge gained from books: “To believe that what is true in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” The person who scorns personal intuition and, instead, chooses to rely on others’ opinions lacks the creative power necessary for robust, bold individualism. (Cliffnotes). What he is also saying is that there must be a little inconsistency, and in this context, a little departure from the usual way one does things. It is creativity that he wants to be accomplished.

Thoreau’s individualism emerges as he invites us to be creative individuals and fulfill the mission we are destined to do such as contributing our own share of talents and creativity to the world. Different kinds of leadership are required at different times, but at all times it is a combination of character and competence that is needed. This integrated blend of character and competence is often evident by its absence more than its presence. It is rare, and like most rare things, it is extremely valuable. The leader who exercises power will work from the inside out, starting with himself.

Works Cited

” Sparknotes. Web.

“General Characteristics of the Renaissance” Renaissance. Web.

L’Herrou, Paul. Self-Reliance and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. 1998. Web.

“Self-Reliance.” Cliffnotes. Web.

“The Discovery of the Individual”. Web.

“Thoreau, Henry David.” Civil Disobedience. Handbooks. Web.

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