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10 Best Quotes From Henry David Thoreau’s Essay “Civil Disobedience”
By Joe Jarvis - March 10, 2017

I won’t pretend Henry David Thoreau’s writing thoroughly interests me, as much as I admire him. Truth be told, I find much of his work boring and wordy.

His ideas on government however, are quite interesting, especially coming from someone of his time period. He is among the ranks of abolitionist thinkers, like Josiah Warren, who correctly see in direct slavery the same basic injustices a subject suffers under a government.

Civil Disobedience, or Resisting Civil Government as it was originally titled, was published in 1849 after being first delivered as a lecture. Thoreau was 32 years old, living in Massachusetts. He was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and had tutored his children. At this point Thoreau had already spent his time at Walden Pond.

Civil Disobedience on Amazon.

Thoreau had also spent a night in jail years earlier after refusing to pay a poll tax, which he discusses in Civil Disobedience.

Although the essay was written 168 years ago, it can still spark a lively debate about contemporary tactics for resisting oppressive government.

Here are the ten best quotes from that essay, if you do not have the patience to read the entire 25 pages.

1.

“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least:’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,-‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

This is how Thoreau begins the essay. The point is that government is only required when things need to be forced, and someday, we will live in a world where everything worth being done at all is done with consent of all involved.

2.

“The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. 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.”

Sometimes people need to get together to make things happen. A government is one way to do that, if you need to build a road, or keep people safe. But sometimes governments also murder millions of people, keep entire segments of the population in slavery, and bring the earth to the brink of nuclear holocaust. But those roads though…

3.

“Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of it’s way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.”

Seriously, everything the government takes credit for is really just done by our fellow human beings. There is no reason the good things couldn’t be done voluntarily, which would also help us do away with the bad, like the government stopping innovation and destroying the freedom to create.

4.

It’s almost like Thoreau knew Citizen’s United was coming. Government, in contrast to business, is like a train without a conductor. It barrels on ahead towards destruction, while the men in the back keep shoveling coal into the furnace; because after all, they are just doing their job.

“It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even well disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you see a file of soldiers… marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences…”

5.

“All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a betting with right and wrong… I caste my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority… A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.”

It’s a gamble whether the majority will be right or not. When you vote, you first assume that you can tell what is right given the circumstances and available options, but you also accept that what you think is wrong will happen if a majority wills it. We should take a better stand on right and wrong than leaving it to chance!

6.

“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his own contemplations too.”

We’ve all got our own stuff going on, and it is impossible to solve all of earth’s issues. If you want do something bigger, by all means please do, the world needs it!

But when you must take from others in order to “save” the world, you are failing to account for others wants and needs, which may not align with yours. Any “help” you give others must be funded and provided voluntarily to be just.

7.

“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth,-certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

We must disobey unjust laws, or else we are allowing them to continue and hurt others. Certainly we must break a law that requires us to do evil.

8.

“Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

What gives the government the right to do anything? The biggest muscles, and the most guns. That’s it.

9.

“The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? 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 own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”

10.

“I please myself with imagining a State at last that can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

If the state has a true and useful purpose, then why should it care if some do not participate? That is the next step in government, one where consent is required, that does not force those to conform who cause no trouble, and do their own thing.

The world is improving as individuals gain more rights, and it makes sense to think that someday we will live in a world where governments are hardly recognizable as the current monsters they are. Instead, government will be a voluntary tool of organization, not a mandatory oppressive authority.

Do you agree or disagree with Thoreau’s main points?

Civil Disobedience on Amazon.

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  • robt

    A poll tax was a tax imposed for the privilege of voting; in older times only a person who paid property tax was allowed to vote. The reasoning behind the poll tax was if you are interested enough in voting, you should not mind paying a couple of bucks to do so. Alternatively, you could buy property, pay property tax, support the community and help decide how to spend it rather than contribute nothing and vote to spend someone else’s money. The latter sentiment is reflected in Thoreau’s statement ” … I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.”

    Thoreau was an idealist, like Marx was an idealist, but idealism, an analytic concept, is incompatible with individualism, which is synthetic. The best example of individualism is animals which run free, a condition not suited to humans in an ‘advanced’ society, most of whom would perish quickly without communal support. Thus, the State.
    To hope for a State which more values individuals as the state grows in power is futile, and is in direct contradiction of what a State, and civilization, is.

    • autonomous

      Anyone who would perish without the communal state ought to perish. To enslave the many to save a few is the ultimate self-immolation.

      • Don Duncan

        Do not buy robt’s contention that the communal mindset is practical. Conformist cannon fodder populate the cemeteries. Voluntary cooperation is a valuable attribute of people who reject communal life because it is life enhancing, unlike blind obedience.

        • autonomous

          Well said.

    • Don Duncan

      To do nothing but “hope & pray” is futile. As an idealistic individualist I resist the state even as most worship it. I know as long as the state exists, our species is crippled and may perish. When a society thrives, it does so in spite of the state. A state is comprised of parasitic elite who serve their self interest at the expense of others. One essential tool they use to neutralize other’s self interest is to preach a moral code that values sacrifice to the community or common good or national security. It is such a code that generates worldwide obedience to various rulers who claim to serve, but instead exploit.

      Individualism is a threat to the state because it does not worship coercive authority. This refusal to self sacrifice does not entail being a hermit or refusing to cooperate. On the contrary it is usually manifest by civil behavior because this is beneficial to the individual materially and psychologically.

      It is the state that destroys a civil society. How can it not? It is the epitome of fraud, initiation of violence, or threat thereof.

      • robt

        Not “hope and pray”, but “hope”, if you’re quoting.
        And the sense of the sentence is that realistically the natural progress of government is to diminish individuality rather than increase it. Idealism, by definition, is not realism but a mental construct of a particular individual that conforms to their wishes and which may become cult behaviour. It was characterised by the 1960s mantra to ‘Do your own thing’, the eternal wish of adolescents of any age. Ironically, most of those expressing the wish ended up doing the same thing, or at least trying to, i.e., normal mass human behaviour.
        The progress of any society throughout its history results in the incremental suppression of individualism. This is reality.
        Alternatively, the characteristic and common human actions like fraud and the initiation of violence in a totally individualistic environment would mean such actions taking place on an individual level. The intent of the increase of authority is to prevent such individual actions and ostensibly to protect the weak. The debate always concerns to what extent authority should grow, e.g. ‘ the state governs best which governs least’.
        With reference to the ‘parasitic elite’, Marx was a parasite who idealistically envisioned a society of cooperation without the necessity of a State, or the necessity of anyone working who didn’t want to – in Marx’s case, a lifelong achievement financed by others by whatever means necessary.

        • Don Duncan

          If I participate in a debate as “to what extent authority should grow”, I implicitly accept authority, i.e., the state. I do not. I will not debate that.

          I point out the net result of a monopoly on violence, initiation of force; it’s anti-life. You reply with “the intent of…authority..” as if intent trumps the reality. The opposite is true. You should question your means, focus on a new paradigm that is consistent with your goal “to protect the weak”.

          I suggest that paradigm is voluntarism.

    • Col. Edward H. R. Green

      “Thoreau was an idealist, like Marx was an idealist, but idealism, an analytic concept, is incompatible with individualism, which is synthetic.”

      Have you read Quine’s essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” (1951) ?
      It brought Quine’s debate with Carnap over the analytic-synthetic distinction to widespread attention among philosophers. In this essay, Quine argued against the validity of the distinction. Carnap wanted to maintain a sharp distinction between analytic statements depending entirely on the meanings being used and synthetic statements making assertions about the empirical world. Quine’s alternative view had it that all statements face the world as part of a corporate body of statements. On this view, experience bears the same kind of evidential relation to the theoretical parts of natural science as it does to mathematics and logic.

      See also Quine’s 1960 essay “Carnap and Logical Truth,” which is in the collection The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays. “Two Dogmas” is in the collection From a Logical Point of View.

      I also recommend Leonard Peikoff’s “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy”.

      I’m not interested in getting into a discussion about this subject on this comment board as it is off-topic. Just thought I’d recommend a couple of works on the subject that I found very informative and helpful.

  • georgesilver

    I agree that even the shortened versions are boring. His gist seems to be he doesn’t like the people in charge. He hasn’t quiet worked out that there will always be people in charge and they are usually the most self-centred and avaricious because their need to control is greater than the average persons.
    The best way for an individual, that wants a successful and quiet life, is to look as though he is playing along but goes his own sweet way. Leave the confrontation to people who like that sort of thing and who like to be martyrs. When confronted by authority just say yes and do no. In my 75 years countless wars and innumerable governments have never been able to change human nature.

    • Don Duncan

      The author did not say the quotes were boring.

      HDT was criticizing the involuntary nature of the control mechanism, not any specific personalities. Leaders are a necessity and arise from our diverse interests, skills and abilities. Governments use rulers, not leaders. Rulers pander to the majority who they fear because that is where the ultimate power lies. Hitler did it. They all do.
      Millions of Germans led a “successful and quiet life”, e.g., they played along with the Nazis because they were cowards in every sense. The bombs still fell. They still died.

      Confrontation takes infinite forms. Martyrdom is only one. Speaking and writing critical views, joining peaceful protests, and choosing not to actively support irrational institutions are three more.

      No change in human nature is needed to defeat an inhuman superstition.

  • davidnrobyn

    “That government is best which governs not at all, and, WHEN MEN ARE PREPARED FOR IT, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” (emphasis mine)
    Aye, there’s the rub. Looking down the long corridors of history, I don’t see any tendency toward the betterment of human nature. There seems to be a sort of wishful optimism in Thoreau’s words, which is echoed even more confidently by the commentator: “…someday, we WILL LIVE IN A WORLD where everything worth being done at all is done with the consent of all involved.” (emphasis mine)

    Marx postulated that when the socialist man was perfected, the state would wither away. I don’t see much difference between that idea and what is expressed here.

    • Col. Edward H. R. Green

      “Marx postulated that when the socialist man was perfected, the state would wither away. I don’t see much difference between that idea and what is expressed here.”

      Oh, the difference is profound, like night and day !

      Marx denied that human beings have volition and the ability to govern their minds, thoughts, ideas, actions, and lives independently of others. He argued that human beings are externally controlled by “ideational superstructures” and “economic forces” that metaphysically categorize them into ever-conflicting “bourgeois” and “proletariat” groups or “classes”; consequently, they have no choice at all over how they think and act, so physical force is necessary to remake them, especially the capitalist “bourgeois”, into “socialist man”.

      Marx’s “socialist man” is not a human being; it is zombie-like, and brutal. It is a mindless, self-sacrificial being, devoid of self-identity and self-interest–after it has been thoroughly beaten out–and forcibly molded by the those “enlightened”, i.e. communists in charge of the state to serve “the people”.
      Marx’s society, in theory and inevitable practice in reality results in a social arrangement of enslavement of each to each, each to all, and all to the state in the form of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

      Thoreau’s essay is based implicitly upon the recognition that human beings can reason and govern themselves volitionally and independently of others; therefore, he sees the potential for human beings to exercise their freedom in a way that is mutually respectful of others by engaging consensually, thus peacefully, with others, and resolving their disputes by just rules–just because they respect legitimate individual rights–upheld by governments–not states–to which they give their voluntary consent, and so “live in a world where everything worth being done at all is done with consent of all involved”.

      Is such a world possible ?

      Yes, because human beings possess the faculties of reason and volition. They can choose to be rational, civilized, peaceful, and interact with others by mutual consent.

      Is such a world unattainable ?

      Yes, because human beings have reason and volition. They can choose to be irrational, unreasonable, belligerent, and interact violently with others.

      There is more peace in the world nowadays, generally speaking. But since people exist as individuals physically and mentally independently from others and are capable of volitionally governing their own thought and action, peaceful conditions will likely fluctuate, be regained and lost, and regained and lost.

      Nevertheless, as more people everywhere learn about and value liberty, and learn what is necessary to maintain and nurture it, that peace, that condition of existence arising from a recognition, respect, and defense of legitimate individual rights, will become the rule among all peoples, rather the exception.

      • davidnrobyn

        Okay, so Marx’s view of man is like B.F. Skinner’s (“Beyond Freedom and Dignity”) where he views man as totally determined–perhaps by his environment, perhaps by his genetics, or perhaps by combination of the two.

        And Thoreau’s is that man is a free moral agent (to boil it down). But Thoreau’s mistake is that he expects that man, given a choice between good and evil, will consistently choose good. Frankly, I don’t see evidence of this from history, or from the news. And your expectation (as expressed in your last paragraph) that greater knowledge will lead to better moral choices is, IMHO, going to be disappointed.

        Unlike yourself, I don’t see that there is “more peace in the world nowadays, generally speaking”. Instead, I see things progressing to more and more violence and lawlessness. I think that my observation is more realistic and accurate. And I predict that the trend will continue. More knowledge does NOT lead to better morals. It only gives more power to the immoral.

        If I may generalize, the common libertarian mistake is in discounting man’s propensity for evil. I’ll go further: Man is so perverse that he will often consistently choose evil even though he knows perfectly well that the outcomes are not good. Explain that, if you will.

        • Don Duncan

          “More knowledge does NOT lead to better morals.” More knowledge of ethics, when the philosophical intellectuals go to work and develop such, will lead to better morals. Read “The Virtue of Selfishness”. Man is not perverse, just ignorant. Men don’t choose evil or self destruction. Hitler believed he was a benefactor, a savior of his people.

      • Don Duncan

        Here here! Well said Edward. Too bad we were born too early to enjoy that era.

  • papernpaste

    The problem as I see it is pubic self-confidence is minimized by the STATE (through propaganda and the formation of public opinion). The STATE then has their own agenda and that agenda has absolutely nothing to do with the prosperity of all men in the society. I don’t know when it was taken but personally believe that the concept of the Constitutional Republic was taken designs of a few and by the use of banking system and the debt-based economy. This democracy (as has been the case down through history) has had a silent coup take place. Down through history, a false belief that the common man cannot self-govern through the use of a Republic, has been spread amongst the citizenry by this STATE. This false belief is accepted by the masses because they are bombarded with the propaganda that they are inept and lack the intelligence to self-govern. Meanwhile the STATE goes about their own agenda, stealing revenues from the People to fund their own selfish domestic and international agenda, independent of the desires of the People. The reason that IT APPEARS that men do not have the PREPARATION to be self-governing is because their self-governance has already been silently taken by the Oligarchy.

  • Alan

    It’s appropriate that these thoughts of liberty come from Thoreau who lived in Massachusetts where today it’s one of the most socialist states with the least amount of individual liberty. There’s so many “moonbats” here that people like Elizabeth Warren get elected. The majority in MA can ever have enough laws and regulations to keep all the ignorant incapable masses in line.

    • Don Duncan

      Why is it appropriate? What do “thoughts of liberty” have to do with a socialist state?

      • Alan777

        Isn’t it obvious? Socialism is all about the state controlling individuals’ lives under the ideological assumption that it is for the greater good.

        • Don Duncan

          Ok, I finally got it. You are saying that since MA is so authoritarian it stimulated “thoughts of liberty” in HDT. But when he wrote MA was far less socialist. He was extremely sensitive to even the smallest invasions of liberty. It was his unique independence and writing skill that allowed him to express the spirit of liberty, not his environment. However, it was HDT who inspired Gandhi in a much less free society in South Africa. I propose ideas come from the mentality more than the environment, but the interplay is unclear.

  • TimeToWakeUPAmerica

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    (Read the comments in the ‘comments’ section, which follows the post, at the link, above)

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