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Monday, January 09, 2006

Rediscovering Thoreau

The last time I read Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, we were about two months away from going to war with Saddam Hussein for the first go-round. I was a junior in high school and the version we read was somewhat redacted from Thoreau's complete essay, but it got me thinking about a lot of things pertaining to what freedom really is and how we choose to use it. When I started my published writing career several months later with a series of letters to the editor of this area's biggest newspaper, it was partly because of Civil Disobedience that I was led to do so.

But until this past week I'd never read the entire essay in full. And then I came across a really good quote by Thoreau (from his A Plea for Captain John Brown):

"Many, no doubt, are well disposed, but sluggish by constitution and by habit, and they cannot conceive of a man who is actuated by higher motives than they are. Accordingly they pronounce this man insane, for they know that they could never act as he does, as long as they are themselves."
In other words: Do what you believe is right and screw what anyone else has to say about it, because they secretly hate and despise you... for you possess strength that they do not.

Well, that quote got me curious about Thoreau for the first time in fifteen years, and I went looking for more of his work. And that's how I came across a really well-annotated edition of Civil Disobedience.

Now I wish I'd spent a lot more time in the intervening years studying Thoreau, and the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other writers of the Transcendentalism movement. That seems to be the school of thought that best describes my own philosophical leanings, although I also believe that there is one ultimate truth as established by God that we are called to understand... but that understanding only comes, as the Transcendentalists believed, through personal introspection and reflection. To them, understanding was an act of the individual, and not the corporate. Indeed, very little could come about from the will of incorporated might. And considering how big a mess we are in today because of collectivized thinking, Transcendental thought is looking awfully refreshing.

And it's so funny to me: Just about everything that I've been trying to express with my writing for more than a decade, everything that I've been led to understand through experience and intuitiveness that I've tried to share in one form or another... and there was Thoreau right there, having already said it more than a hundred years before I was born.

The past few days have had me experiencing a personal "renaissance" of thought. Once again - maybe really for the first time and yes I do mean to say that - I'm discovering what it is I believe in regarding personal responsibility, individual liberty, and the relationship between people and government. All these years of college and various jobs and different situations and times of personal and spiritual growth, and the kind of person they've made me to be (hopefully a good one)... reading some of this stuff this past week has been like an affirmation for me. But I also cannot help but believe that I've a long way to go still with my understanding of things: people like Thoreau and Emerson, they were the real masters.

So I've read through Civil Disobedience twice now, and have been thoroughly struck at how so much of it applies to where we're at today. Thoreau's style isn't quite as fluid as that which modern readers are used to - he writes in distinct units of thought - but it's still very readable... maybe moreso than most op-ed pieces that get published nowadays. This man wastes no time cutting to the heartmeat of the matter: this is an essay about ideas, not ideologies.

And what powerful ideas they are...

"...This government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its 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."

"Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward."

"Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys , and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?"

"All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. 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. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote."

"I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come to? Shall we not have the advantage of this wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reasons to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought."

"Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?"

"Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight."

"When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that, whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question, and their regard for the public tranquillity, the long and the short of the matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it. For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State. But, if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in outward respects. It will not be worth the while to accumulate property; that would be sure to go again."

"...The state never intentionally confronts a man's sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior with 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 force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way or that by masses of men."

"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."

Dear Lord, these are the kinds of ideas that would start a second American revolution, if enough people were allowed to think about them!!

I mean, can anyone be found in our federal government - or even our local ones - who believes like Thoreau did? This one essay totally destroys any validity that either the Democrats or Republicans, or the so-called "conservatives and liberals" have worked so long to establish for themselves. It's especially a slap in the face to all the "small government" Republicans who've come to Washington since the '94 election, who have only let government grow that much more overbearing and intrusive.

Can you envision an America where the tenets of Civil Disobedience are adhered to? No excessive taxation. No bungling in foreign lands. No PATRIOT Act. No more major political parties. No more "leaders" installed by special interests. From then on, it would be each man (and woman) and his or her conscience to guide this land. We would give all the damnable opportunists who have taken our money, our liberty, and our children's futures a good swift kick in the butt... and keep kicking them while they're down. Civil Disobedience reads like a manifesto for the common man to stand against the entrenched elites that would have him robbed of his individuality.

Dear God, why can't more people in our own time write the way Thoreau did? Why can't we take his ideas to heart and strive to apply them to ourselves and our government? Why, it would completely overturn more than a hundred years of bloated government. There would finally, at last, be a government of, by, and for the people... but government that is shown the line and told "to this point and no further".

Ever have one of those moments when you feel like everything crystallizes and you can finally see something you can't fully describe in words, but it irrevocably alters you? That's what it's been like for me the past half-week or so since discovering this, and some other stuff. And I like to think that it's going to have an effect on my writings from here on out, either here or elsewhere. If nothing else, I like to think that my personal meditation on Civil Disobedience will encourage others to do likewise, and grow from it.

And I hope and pray that I live to see the day when the ideas that Thoreau was expressing here - about what it means to be real men and women - take their rightful place in dominance over the hearts and minds of this country's people.