Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

“That government is best which governs least”
In Civil Disobedience, first published in 1849, Henry David Thoreau asserts that when a government acts in a way contrary to the conscience of one of its individual subjects, that individual has a duty to deny any allegiance to that government by ceasing to pay taxes and refusing to obey unjust laws. While Thoreau was focused on the issues of slavery and the Mexican-American War, much of the rhetoric in Civil Disobedience is broad enough that it can be used as an inspirational rallying cry for dissenters of every stripe, from anarchists to Tea Partiers. By today’s standards, Thoreau’s own political thought was a fiercely individualistic mix of liberalism and libertarianism. He was a staunch pacifist, anti-military, and critical of the judicial and penal systems, yet he was also against big government, trade regulation, and taxation. In Thoreau’s view, all governments are inherently corrupt. Just because democracy is based on majority rule doesn’t make it any less corrupt, because the approval of the majority is no guarantee of justice and right. Instead of waiting for their government to become just, citizens should behave justly, even if that means breaking the law.

Civil Disobedience amounts to about thirty pages in printed form, and takes about an hour to read, depending on how much time you want to spend dissecting Thoreau’s antiquated grammar and syntax. From the perspective of the language alone, this is a more difficult, less accessible read than his best-known work, Walden. More effort is required to decipher Thoreau’s prose in order to extract the kernel of his message. The Kindle file that’s available for free on Amazon was created by Project Gutenberg. The text was typed rather than scanned, but doesn’t seem to have been proofread, as it still contains several typographical errors. The file includes only the text of Thoreau’s essay, with no introduction or notes. In this case, notes can be helpful in clarifying some of Thoreau’s historical references, so a well-edited paperback edition may provide a more helpful reading experience for first-time readers. For those familiar with Thoreau and this great work, however, a digital, highlightable copy makes for a welcome addition to your portable e-book library.

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