H. D. Thoreau: Man first, subject afterwards

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On a summer morning of 1846, H.D. Thoreau walks through the streets of his hometown, Concorde, Massachusetts. He has just been released from prison, where he spent the night for refusing to pay the Poll Tax to the state of Massachusetts.

Due to this incident, the writer gave a lecture initially titled “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), which was later published under the title “Civil Disobedience” (1866).

In this particular essay, which is examined today, we attempt to outline the main points defining Thoreau’s worldview, concerning the dynamics of a wide range of relations that occur from the separation of public and private sphere, as well as all possible actions to be taken by the individual, towards a more righteous society, towards a less unjust government.

“There will never be a really free and enlightened state, until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its power and authority are derived”

Examining his contemporary U.S society, including the institutions that compose what he understands, to be described under the general term “Government”, Thoreau ascertains what is to be the constant theme of his work: an eternal gap between Law and Right. While the Body of Law, with the Constitution predominant, as reflected in the structure and function of the Institutions, ends up being the multiple whole-making result of Power, rigid and continuous,  that permeates sxocial relations, crossing the Social Fabric vertically, Right (considered as Justice) is considered a common all-human code, an omnipresent global constant.(At this point, Thoreau approaches Natural Law).

The field of Individual Rights and “privacy” especially ,which the Government tends to circumvent in order to achieve its own goals, appears to be a continuous friction point between Law and Right.

“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.”

Charcoal drawing of H.D Thoreau. Created by our author

Moreover, the author’s perception of the confrontational relationship between the State and the Individual is ruled by a key concept: a gradual “de-individualisation”[i], turning someone from a person-Holder of universal human Rights to a citizen-Obedient social fraction, subject to multiple Government calculations, that takes place during the process of the formation of the State entity and the associated collapsing of the public sphere.

From Thoreau’s perspective, it is this “de-individualisation” that constitutes the basis of all injustice. The “apocalyptic” fact that the Government, far from being intentionally fraudulent, cannot but be fundamentally unjust, since the internal mechanism that defines all governmental logic in modern democracies transforms (deliberately or not) persons into citizens without their consent. A consent necessary for the existence and continuity of a minimum Social Contract , upon which both sides can base.

“The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to— for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well— is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed”

However, Thoreau goes beyond simple conclusions. In order to re-establish the lost Law/Justice and State/Person unity he proposes “Civil Disobedience”

But what Civil Disobedience may actually be?

Being by no means an attempt or a call to armed resistance, the author’s view dissociates from other movements of his era such as Christian Pacifism [ii]or William Lloyd Garrison[iii]. The meaning of Civil Disobedience remains ambiguous in the essay ,being for the same reason a significant influence to personalities of various socio-historical backgrounds, such as Mahatma Gandhi, M. Luther King and Howard Zinn among others…

We will, eventually emphasize its two main dimensions:

1. As Lawrence Rosenwald [iv]  has correctly noted ,civil disobedience is the only choice left when someone cannot abstain from acting anymore. Therefore it is the action that arises (even if unwillingly) from the point of no return when One’s consciousness comes into conflict with the Government aspirations (for example, the Poll Tax to support the war against Mexico ,which Thoreau refused to pay when the tax collector came to his door)

2. The author does not prioritize non-violent practices over violent ones, in an undeniable spherical strategy , degrading the issue into a matter of tactical alternative. Thus, the character of a possible action will be directly related to the context of “resistance”, so that the legitimacy of every disobedience practice will be determined by the injustice that this practice aims to heal.

In a final valuation of the essay, crucial conclusions emerge, relating to the authors “ethical” stance (ancient Greek ethos means an individual’s behavioral practice) as it could be interpreted over time. Thoreau follows   the very spirit of his time, however going beyond it, proposing an attitude of continuous “active questioning” of the Government authority over individual rights, a method effective enough to lead to more righteous societies.

Still, we cannot help but ask ourselves:

– What could be the usefulness of Thoreau’s method in today’s circumstances? Which particular meaning should the concept of “active questioning” get in the biopolitical [v] context of our era , and  under which conditions can it form an agenda about the reconstitution of a more democratic public sphere?

-How can   individual rights reaffirm and strengthen this reconstitution? In short ,are citizens in any position to play active part in public dialogue in today’s democracy?

Thoreau gave his answers once and for all. His essay is a perfect starting point for every one of us to try finding their own…



[i] Contrary to the psychological/psychoanalytic terms  deindividuation and deindividualization.

[ii] Christian Pacifism declares non-violence at all circumstances, as incompatible with the Words of Jesus

[iii] W.L. Garrison (1805-1879) leader of the anti-slavery movement and publisher of “THE LIBERATOR”

[iv] Rosenwald, Lawrence A.  “The Theory, Practice, and Influence of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.”  A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau.  Ed. William E. Cain.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

[v] Term referring  to Michel Foucault .

Kostas Deroukakis
Love to search, to try, to give, to learn. Knowledge, is the road for this achievement
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