Monday, September 15, 2014

Civil Disobedience

“I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.” ~Henry Thoreau from Civil Disobedience
Henry David Thoreau died in 1862, forty-four years after he was born. He was remarkably ugly in appearance, as noted by Nathanial Hawthorne, “[Thoreau] is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.”

Thoreau was peculiar from birth, and when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson, he became an avid student of his doctrine of self-deity and oneness with nature. Each thought that no one else in the world appreciated nature as much as he did, and Thoreau had little use for anything outside of the great outdoors. Of newspapers he said, “If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident…we never need read of another…if you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?

Thoreau must have taken Emerson’s Self-Reliance to heart. Thoreau built himself a hut on Emerson’s property by squatters rights – a hut so small, a friend called it a ‘sentry box’– and lived there for two years, growing his own food and wandering the woods for more than half the day. He wrote Walden, telling of his experiences and outlining his success in using a very small amount of money during the time he lived there. He forgot to add that he didn’t have to pay taxes on the land, because of squatter’s rights…not to mention his poll tax.

During the time Thoreau was living in his hut and communing with nature, he went to town to pick up his shoe at the cobbler’s. He was confronted by the town sheriff, Sam Staples, who asked him why he hadn’t paid his poll tax for six years and added that he would pay it himself if Thoreau didn’t have the money. Thoreau did have the money, he just wasn’t paying it. He was against the Mexican War he explained and the Sheriff unhappily locked him up. The next morning he was released; somebody had paid the tax. Thoreau had made his protest against the war, so he got his shoe and went home to his sentry box.

As was his way, Thoreau later wrote up his jail experiences into a book entitled Civil Disobedience.
He started it with the line, “I heartily accept the motto, ‘that government is best which governs least,” but added that he really believed, “that government is best which governs not at all.” He explained that he had no respect for the state, but rather pitied it. Since, as a transcendentalist he believed that he was divine, he thought it strange that the state could lock him up as mere flesh and blood. “I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was…They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred.” 

In Walden Thoreau wrote, “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.”  His view of right and wrong clearly mirrors Emerson’s in Self¬-Reliance when he said, “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.

Transcendentalism, Emerson’s doctrine, was a belief of self-deity; a dismissal of any higher Being or Law. It taught that anything goes and 'good' and 'evil' simply don't exist. Both Emerson and Thoreau failed to realize that without values, the world would be run by everyone's personal whims, which would result in chaos. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau said of the government, “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…” in some ways, this is correct, but Thoreau did not realize that the 'inherent character' of the American people and his own ‘good behavior’ were not inherit at all, but were the remnants of the biblical values of his ancestors.

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