On the Duty of Civil Disobedience


Henry David Thoreau

Today, there are few ideas more dangerous than the idea that we are or can be “self-reliant.” Henry David Thoreau we regard as a hero of the myth of American individualism, which finds its roots in the very “founding” of the nation. He is the self-righteous existential crusader, posing as the only one, out of the whole sleeping mob, who really gets it. Though my engagement with Thoreau himself has always been somewhat limited, I nonetheless encountered his reincarnation in Jack Kerouac and other white men who had the luxury - indeed, the luxury - to walk away from communal life and responsibility to go it “alone.” But maturity reveals the fallacy. It is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to deny our inextricable embeddedness in creation, despite our efforts. As Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” We belong to each other, in addition to “nature,” a concept so romanticized by Thoreau and others like him. You can not embrace the one and reject the other. All is connected; disconnection is impossible and to attempt it is irresponsible.


With one exception. Thoreau’s most significant contribution to American thought is and will be “Resistance to Civil Government,” popularly known by its tamer title, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” His essay on nonviolent resistance to dominant culture influenced a range of activists and thinkers, from Leo Tolstoy, to Martin Buber, to Mahatma Gandhi, to Martin Luther King. Indeed, Thoreau’s thesis breathes rarefied air. How so? He touches a deep nerve of human consciousness. The nerve of truth - that we are born to be peaceful, but that to live peacefully, in total peace, requires a life-change, a renunciation of so much that the broader culture values.  To live in peace means to look askance at power, to see clearly who benefits and who suffers. Today, we look at the global market and the governments that serve it, and we see unprecedented complexity. On the one hand, global standards of living are at an all-time high. On the other hand, the market requires modern forms of slavery and war to sustain its enterprise. To try to live outside the marketplace is to invite rejection, persecution, subtle and overt forms of punishment. Still, this kind of disconnection is essential to our evolution as a species. To disconnect from the globalized market, to see things clearly, is to partake of the long tradition of peace, which connects us to each other, though it requires heroic personal risk.


But we have our heroes, whom the market does its best to turn into neutralized, neutered pop icons. Still, as Jesus says, the words of peace will not pass away. I will leave you with a few, from one of my heroes, Martin Luther King. In his essay “The Power of Nonviolence,” he writes:


Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word. It is the word “maladjusted.” Now we all should seek to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things. I call upon you to be as maladjusted as Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day cried out in words that echo across the generation, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could cry out, “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who dreamed a dream of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. God grant that we will be so maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change our world and our civilization. And then we will be able to move from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.


In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King writes:


I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.


The irony of our lives is this: that to become “maladjusted,” however “extreme” it seems, is liberating, despite the dangers. I suggest that we put Thoreau’s idea of disobedience in its proper place in the constellation of peace literature. But I also suggest that we see Thoreau’s “self-reliant” reclusion as an illusion of privilege. No one is “self-reliant”; no one is “independent.” We are others-reliant, interdependent. When we awaken to this deep truth, we see the sad folly in our ways, but we encounter at last the path to lasting joyful peace.


Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor
December 2017

Mouse Podcast: 001 Thoreau (special guest Dr. Evan B. Carton)