Thoreau affirms the absolute right of individuals to withdraw their support from a government whose policies are immoral or unjust. He takes issue with the brand of moral philosophy that weighs the possible consequences of civil disobedience against the seriousness of the injustice. The methods of resistance Thoreau condones in his essay are pacifist and rely principally on economic pressure; for example, withholding taxes in order to drain the State of its resources and hence its ability to continue its unjust policies. The ultimate goal of civil disobedience is not to undermine democracy but to reinforce its core values of liberty and respect for the individual.
Individual conscience and morality
Only an individual can have and exercise a conscience. By definition, both the State and corporations are impersonal, amoral entities that are nonetheless composed of individuals. "It has been truly said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience." An individual has a right and an obligation to "do at any time" what he deems right, to exercise his own conscience by refusing involvement or complicity in a government that enforces unjust policies. Civil disobedience is a necessary expression of individual conscience and morality, an attempt to reconfigure the relationship between the individual and the State by making the latter more equitable and less burdensome in its treatment of the former. While supportive of democratic principles, Thoreau does not believe in settling questions of fundamental moral importance by majority opinion.
The most ideal form of government is one which exercises the least power and control over its citizens. Thoreau believes that government is an inherently intrusive force that stifles the creative enterprise of the people. His avowed faith in ordinary citizens stands in contrast to the entrenchment of an elite political class that Thoreau perceives as incompetent and ineffectual. His libertarian leanings are, however, tempered with limited support for some government initiatives, such as public education and highway maintenance. Democracy is not the last stage in the evolution of the State, as there is still greater room to recognize the freedom and rights of the individual. Thoreau pushes this line of thinking to its logical limit by envisioning a society in which government is eliminated altogether because men have the capacity to be self-regulating and independent.
Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Civil Disobedience is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
During his stay at Walden Pond (later to become the subject of his published journal Walden, or Life in the Woods), Thoreau spent one night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax meant to support America's war with Mexico. He composed a letter...