December 29, 2009

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

BOOK #: 92
REASON READ: Reading Your Name Challenge
PUBLISHER: My copy is B&N Classics
GENRE: Nonfiction, Classics, Essay, Literary Biography, Political/Social
FORMAT/PAGES: Paperback/Part of Anthology/21 Pages
RATING: 4.5 Stars

What can I say about this important work that has not been said before? Nothing. But I can give you what I got out of reading this essay. @Vasilly said 'Why don't you just write a blurb about the book?' when I complained to her I was having trouble getting started writing this review. However, once I started, I found I had a lot to say....

Thoreau's Civil Disobedience came out of the movement known as Transcendentalism. If you don't know, or don't remember from school, American Transcendentalism grew out of a protest in New England of the culture and society that was prevalent in the mid 19th century. Transcendentalists believed that an ideal spiritual state was not the one made solely out of religious doctrine, but one that transcended into nature, intuition, and idealism. It also rejected the idea that knowledge can only be gained through experience and observation, but could also be obtained through spiritual awakening.

Thoreau's Civil Disobedience challenges the status quo and dares Americans to stand up for what is right and do what is right, and NOT JUST TALK ABOUT IT. He challenges the idea of slavery, corruption, paying taxes, the Mexican-American war and he even challenges abolitionists to withdraw their support of the government.

"Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it....There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing...They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and God-speed to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man. But it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it."

If that is not a bold and powerful statement, I confess I don't know what is.

Thoreau goes on to explain how he in different ways has put his money where his mouth is, so to speak. He shows he is no hypocrite. But he also shows he is not seeking a violent rebellion. In fact, he is opposed to unnecessary acts of aggression. As a country, we still have yet to embrace this message wholeheartedly.

Thoreau also accuses people of taking positions for which they have no understanding or knowledge of the circumstances that arose around it. I certainly have this problem with people today and can understand his frustration. In my opinion, it is impossible to take a position politically, religiously, or otherwise, completely without question and with earnest, without actually knowing anything about the situation! Why do people do this? Do not take another person's position without understanding how they arrived at such a conclusion. Think for yourself! Do not let others think for you!

Thoreau expresses his concern for this by comparing it to soldiers who must do what they are told, serving not as men but
"as machines...marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences..."

The mechanical way people react in this country is a problem that is just as real now as it was in the 1800s. While soldiers are trained to do as they are told as much for their safety as for their duty to the country, civilians act as if they are robots, blindly falling into line with everyone else because they are ignorant to what is really happening. (Note: I don't want anything taken the wrong way here. I am completely a supporter of soldiers and know that they must follow orders and die for their country and beliefs. I don't want anyone thinking I don't. My father, grandfather, uncle, and boyfriend have all served.)

The worst part is when people choose to be ignorant over a situation. It is as Abraham Lincoln said, "The man who can read and doesn't has no advantage over the man who can't," I say that the person who can be informed and chooses to let someone else make decisions for them has no advantage over the person who has no choice. It is a waste of democracy and freedom. If you let politicians or neighbors tell you "their versions" of the information (or even news agencies) than you are allowing others to pick and choose which information they think is important for you to know about.

It is hard to stay informed, no doubt. Especially in the internet age. There is always a breaking news story, a new op-ed piece, a new report, a new eyewitness account. But it is important that we know what we are or are not obeying. We need to know what we are and are not supporting. We need to know what we do and do not believe. This can't be done by taking in only bits and pieces of information or by using only one or two sources for information. Thoreau's Civil Disobedience is as much about encouraging others to perform their duties of freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and, of course, responsibility. Thoreau's essay is also about reaching your own individual conclusions about life through both the physical and the spiritual realms.

I may have gone off on a tangent here (and my soapbox) but I think that just proves how immensely meaningful a read this is. If you have not read this essay, or it has been a while, like it has for me (read it in high school, but had completely different reaction this time), I recommend re-reading it. Even if you don't agree with Thoreau's points, it is an important read.


  1. I enjoyed this review/commentary - Thoreau is always relevant and he and Emerson were basically rock stars in their time. Emerson was even considered too radical to lecture at Harvard, which was known for its radical intellectuals at the time.

    Thoreau's work and the entire Romanticist/Transcendentalist movement will remain relevant as long as people are greedy and frightened of change - which is to say, always. Great writeup!

  2. Thanks, Scott! That means a lot coming from an author! :)

  3. What a beautiful, thought-provoking post! I don't think I've ever read this book in its entirety.

  4. " is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it." Amen to that!

    What a great review, Rebecca! I have to confess I'm surprised that Thoreau's book is as relevant now as it was 100-ish years ago. But I suppose we are still a nation of people who are challenged to stand up for what is right and not just convenient.

  5. I adored this in college - still have my journal notes - and really nead to re-read it. Great review/commentary. The Lincoln quote you featured is one of my favorites.


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