The Cepia Club Blog

The Cepia Club Blog: The Cepia Club believes individual awareness and activism can lead to a peaceful and prosperous world. This blog contains the pertinent literature, both creative and non-fiction, produced by the Cepiaclub Director and its associates.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Review of:: Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” 1849.

Review of: Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” 1849.

By Tim Krenz

Any creed, religious dogma, party platform—anything supposing to represent a higher, (fanciful?) truth by which we can live together by separating us from other people of other beliefs, breaks apart under its own weight, sucked by gravity into the burning atmosphere of the real world. As individuals we make mistakes, allowable by our human nature. Hence, we may define the art of politics as a compromise between competing agendas. How much damage can one wrong idea or action do? When ideas come down to the purity of their principle, the virtue of those in control of both the principle's interpretation and the enforcement of its virtues in public become nothing less than tyranny.

Henry David Thoreau's essay “Civil Disobedience” meets a critical standard in both a personal AND political philosophy. It puts only one person on the trial of their conscience between right and wrong. If right, something good can come of it, like more people following the leadership of example by choice, and not following the rules from the point of a gun. If one person is wrong, there is little consequence. In Thoreau's suggestion to oppose any injustice by government with personal, individual, and well-considered acts of peaceful, non-violent, non-cooperation, history bears out the power of “civil disobedience” in ending injustice, no matter how long it takes. The most prominent examples are Indian Independence from Great Britain (not relevant to the Hindi-Muslim civil war that followed), and the African-American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s..

The important lesson of history since 1849, when Thoreau wrote the essay, is, on the other hand, that injustice can build into evil; therefore, injustice must be stopped by such a personal and personalized program of action BEFORE it is institutionalized. When wrong and injustice become so permanent in their hold on power, no matter if won in a legitimate election (like the Nazis in 1932-33), the unjust state ultimately can use the legal levels of power to create an extra-legal reign of terrorism to maintain itself ( as in the French Revolution and the guillotine).

When discussing Thoreau's 1849 essay, one might compare it to The Manifesto of the Communist Party, written in 1848 by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Seeing a massive movement of workers in a worker state, without government, as the final goal of their program of action to enforce their view of justice and equality, the Manifesto eventually became modified by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and even that peculiar socialist, Hitler (who modeled much of his rule after Lenin). These tyrants and murderers created not classless societies of justice, peace and equality, but elite societies where the many served as expendable slaves to serve the few at top of the state. The result of National Socialism (Nazism) was a unified state committing violent war of imprisonment extermination against whole races and nations.

In the end, like any movement with lack of open-mindedness and tolerance, those who believe they know the ONLY way others should think about or do something end up proving they had a very bad idea in the first place. Ideas, as Thomas Jefferson said, need vigorous debate—for people to decide with their own free choice; for error exposed to free examination is harmless. Liberty of choice is the first test of a government based on reason, and it secures Nature's-given rights for everyone. But this only works, as Thoreau may have said, if we are responsible in our choices. Otherwise, all governments not based on consent and compensation for everyone become tyrannies which can only maintain their platform and policies by coercion, fraud, theft and force.

The story behind the essay, “Civil Disobedience,” is easily told. Thoreau spent a night in jail (which he found educational and interesting) because he refused to pay a federal indirect tax, as authorized in the 1787 Constitution, because the tax would help pay for the United States war against Mexico. The war against Mexico from 1846 to 1848 was primarily about the extension of territory to expand slavery. Thoreau would not want to live as a slave; therefore, he would not support the enslavement of others, or wars to make it possible. Elements of both the Whig and Democratic parties supported the war, as such, in order to delay having to settle the issue of slavery in the United States once and for all. Later, General and eventual President U.S. Grant, who fought as junior officer in the Mexican War, admitted in his personal memoirs that the war against Mexico was a brazen violation decency and nothing more than a war of unprovoked aggression for profit and narrow, special interests. Thoreau took a courageous act. He did not pay his tax as the only way he could peacefully, non-violently NOT participate in the evil that was slavery or appeasement of slavery.

Compare Thoreau's peaceful action to not fund the war by his refusal to pay the tax with abolitionist John Brown. John Brown was a self-styled Christian warrior, a possessed fanatic whose sole creed had become to end slavery through the spread of violence, and indeed had committed cold-blooded murder in Kansas and insurrection against the Federal government before the war between the states. In history, Brown is seen as a dark prophet who sparked fear through violence and murder, and was the catalyst to secession and civil war—which cost over 600,000 American lives. Thoreau, meanwhile, might be seen as a forefather of a peaceful future, whereby the liberty of individuals to be left alone when not volunteering themselves and with the personal freedom of choice to live free of injustice by NOT supporting it. One can only hope that we will become closer to the better angels of the Nature which makes us human, and will keep us human and equally liable to our own flaws and poor judgment. We had best live together in liberty and freedom or we might not live on this world someday at all.