What is protest? Vol. 1

Henry Thoreau’s ideas on Civil Disobedience 

This is the first volume in a series of investigations into the concept of protest through examples and ideas.

On the method:

In this essay I will be examining Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience. I will do this by chronologically going through it. Here and then I will try to translate Thoreau’s ideas to contemporary examples or terminology. Before that I will introduce Thoreau and then say something about the etymology of the words ‘civil’ and ‘disobedient’. After reading Civil Disobedience I will try to put Thoreau’s ideas into a short contemporary ‘how to’. 

Henry David Thoreau:

Henry David Thoreau, an 18th century philosopher and writer, might not be the first one you think of when thinking of protest. Thoreau is famous for his book Walden, which is a diary of his experiences of retracting from society into a small hut he had built himself in the forests close to a pond called Walden. He uses his retraite to think about society and al it quirks, which he, very rhetorically criticised. In the last year of his five-year long retraite he published an essay called Civil Disobedience, which stresses a form of agency in civil life. We are going to examine this essay and try to define what Thoreau called ‘civil disobedience’. 

   Thoreau saw philosophy as a way of life, not as a mere reflection on it. He thus tried to develop what now may be called philosophy of life. His ideas conflict with the by then popular ideas of dualism introduced by Descartes. Dualism implies a separation between mental and physical life, which Thoreau disagreed with. Life and thinking should be united. This conception is extended upon in his essay Civil Disobedience, in which he forwards agency against the objectifying apparatus of government – which turns subjects into ‘stone, wood and iron’. 

On the words ‘civil’ and ‘disobedience’

Civil disobedience implies one important affirmation: that the one who commits to disobedience is already part of a society. From the late 14th century onwards the etymology of the world civil implies a “relat[ion] to civil law or life; pertaining to the internal affairs of a state”.[1] Civil thus is about the relation to internal affairs of a certain state. It implies being part of it. Disobedience is the negative of obedience, which means “submission to higher power or authority”.[2] Disobedience thus means a resistance or refusal of that higher power or authority.

   When combining the concept of civil with disobedience one gets two things. The first is that only within a certain authority, one can resist or refuse that authority. This makes the idea of civil disobedience somewhat paradoxical, for one needs authority to be called civilian to then be able to refuse it. It thus not is something you do when you are not part of the society it regards. It only counts within the society you are part of. Secondly, this somewhat paradoxical definition of civil society makes disobedience a gradual concept. It can never be pure, because it presupposes an authority. Disobedience depends on authority.


Reading of Civil Disobedience:

Thoreau’s problem with government:

Thoreau’s essay starts with a very clear statement. A statement that we may now call liberal: “That government is best which governs least.”[3] He explains this notion by referring to the war between Mexico and the United States between 1846 and 1848, which he calls the work of a few using a standing army – a large group of civilians – who would never had consented with the measure of war if it were up to them. Thoreau describes the intentions of this war as an “endeavouring…” act ”…to transmit itself unimpaired to prosperity but each instant losing some of its integrity”[4]. Through this first paragraph he makes it very clear, that government policy, hurts civilians for its own gain. He says, that soldiers are not movable forts and magazines. They are human beings first and only then subjects.[5] Men is not a tool of government. He is not made of stone, wood, iron or straw and dirt.[6] Yet government uses and sees human beings as tools at its own disposal.  

            This critique does not mean Thoreau was a liberalist – he does not want to abolish every sense of government. “I ask for, not at once no government”[7] but what he asks for is “at once a better government”[8]. He says that he “cannot for an instant recognize that political organisation [US] as my government which is the slave’s government also.”[9] The method for reaching this better government is to “let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect.”[10] To so to say, to break free from the slavery to the government. A sense of conscious reflection on one’s part in society us crucial in finding what demands respect and what not. The act of realising what demands one’s respect is done through civil disobedience, which is to make know one’s consciousness. Thoreau wants every man – the subjects of society – to do this.

            He therefore asks why there can be no government wherein the citizens decide based on consciousness – where citizens do not resign their consciousness to the legislator. He pleads for a government which is based on what the civilians think is ‘right’. Government does not have consciousness, but a government of conscious man does.[11]  

The usual methods for change and their faults:

As long as civilians are blindly objectifying themselves – making themselves into wood, stone, iron – by following governmental orders they “are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God.”[12] In this statement Thoreau shows that he very much still an Enlightenment thinker: one has, and should use his or her reason (i.e. think!). Yet Thoreau foresees the dualism it might cause, because “there are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them.”[13] The word do is very important here. Translated to contemporary examples of protest, passivism, might cohere with Thoreau’s example. Doing nothing – just thinking – won’t help.

Revolution, which he calls the right to refuse allegiance to the government, might sound like a better solution to bad goverment. He uses the metaphor that the invading army in war is the army of revolutionaries,[14] which at first seems an act of civil disobedience yet it poses a problem, which is that it does not solve the problem that caused a revolution. It just switches between two evils. It tries to flee. Translated to contemporary terminology, revolution for Thoreau, equals escapism. By escaping the civil order, one only acknowledges a problem, yet not solves it. Thoreau starts looking at methods of change within the civil order.

            The first obvious way seems to be voting within the parliamentary democracy, but he regards voting a form of passivism as well: “even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.”, even if “the majority shall at length vote for the abolishment of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished.”[15] The slaves that are voted on “will not be the only slaves” – the voters are as well.

            Voting does not seem a solution to problems according to Thoreau. It only affirms the system that is the cause of the problem. Yet regarding the topic of revolution: it does not always have to happen on national scale. Thoreau tries to combine the radical of revolution with the individual and contemplative aspects of voting. “Action from principle, the perception and performance of the right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary…it not only divides states […] ay, it divides individuals, separating the diabolical in him from the divine”.[16] It separates individuals from the system, creating minorities, or in contemporary terminology ‘radicals’. The system, according to Thoreau, provides unjust law. He wonders whether we should obey those, or whether we should transgress them at once: such as Christ did – who paid for it with crucifixion, or Copernicus and Luther who had been excommunicated for their deeds. According to Thoreau, the reason transgressors are seen as evil lies not within the transgressors, but within the system: it makes them evil.[17] It has a monopoly on morals and the power to act on it. Thoreau wonders why the government does “not encourage its citizens to be on the alert and point out its faults?”[18] Why does the system not listen to the minorities? Minorities point out the faults in the system and should thus be helpful to it. How to use this act of transgression in an effective way? 


If a thousands of people refuse to pay taxes, because they do not support government or its laws, and thus become a minority, a prison becomes the only place for a just man under a government which imprisons unjustly. It is the place where the state places those who are not with her but against her. Prison is “the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.”[19] For anyone who fears their influence will be lost there: Thoreau says that truth is stronger than error. Influence due to imprisonment in accordance with the just, is way stronger than a ‘strip of paper’. The word thousands is of significance here. One single transgressor is deniable, and will end up in prison. Many transgressors are not deniable. The disobedience of many, would not be a violent and bloody measure, it would be, what Thoreau calls, a “peaceable revolution”.[20] But only if also the tax gatherer or any public officer resigned his office, this revolution would be complete. This tax example Thoreau uses builds on an act of retaking agency that has been taken away by the government through the creation of subjects which turned man into wood, stone and iron. This takes away all the power Government has, for it needs support, which it gets through representation which is an act of gathering agency from man – to exist and function. It pacifies and immobilises; representation, which Thoreau describes as almost an evil thing. [21] 

Thoreau’s ‘footnotes’ to civil disobedience:

Thoreau himself was imprisoned once for not paying taxes himself. While describing the three foot think walls and the foot think door, he was struck by the foolishness of the institution, which regarded him as mere flesh, blood and bones to be locked up.[22] The wall standing between Thoreau’s freedom and his townsman, was even bigger and higher than the walls he was confined to in the prison cell. The state has confined his body, not his intellect or his morals.[23]

            According to Thoreau the form of civil disobedience described through the tax example is easier for the poor, who own nothing, than for the rich man who “is always sold to the institution which makes him rich”[24], i.e. government. This offers a good explanation of why within discussion about state and democracy there is also always a distinction between poor and rich: because, according to Thoreau, the rich depend on the system. They have something to lose. The poor don’t have anything to lose; only something to gain.

            Thoreau ends his essay with a wish for better time, though realising that there are still grounds to cover. The method in doing so, is civil disobedience. Thoreau states that “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.”[25] The state is powerless without consenting subjects, and as long as man is consenting with state power, the law as it is will be consistent. The objective thus is to deny the act of empowering the state, when in discontent with it. The method of activated discontent, is civil disobedience, which is the refusal of partaking in a structure that one disagrees with. The refusal reclaims the agency that one has given to the state by being its subject and therefore deprives the state of its power.


How to: civil disobedience.

In his essay, Thoreau offers a few traits and insights in to civil disobedience. He gave us one example, that of tax evasion. When translated to contemporary examples, tax evasion is a widely spread phenomenon – but not to reform the state according to its civilians, but as a method of walking through the white space in between the sentences of the law. This is done by the ‘rich men’ about who Thoreau speaks. In that tense, those have learned from Thoreau’s tax evasion, which was powerless because he was the only one doing it. This is the most important critique towards Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience. Aside, one thing that weakens civil disobedience, is when it’s goal is not maintained. Thoreau, for example, explicitly notes that every time he refused to pay taxes, somebody else paid it for him. This makes the action ineffective. It is thus important, for civil disobedience, to formulate a group of backers, and to make sure the actions of civil disobedience are well spread throughout society. A single case does not hold power in a majority aimed parliamentary democracy.

            A few traits that make civil disobedience easier, as Thoreau describes, is to be poor – meaning to have nothing to lose, only to gain. A second trait is to be practical: do not focus your disobedience at the whole of society because it will be un-aimed an ineffective. Aim it at one specific issue and find the method of evading the civilian duties one has regarding this single issue. Do not pay taxes, if those taxes pay for a war you don’t support (such was the case for Thoreau). An contemporary example is maternity leave, which is in many countries a right only for the person bearing the child: the woman. For the last few years many have advocated that man should have the same right – yet so far nothing has changed. A way to enforce such a policy, is to not show up at work for a few days after the child has been born. Of course, as said before, it is important that many people do this, otherwise you will just be punished by not receiving pay. Therefore, an action group to mobilize civilians is very useful. Announcing this measure beforehand is what gives the signal to the authorities about the goal of the action, which generates a focus on the task at hand and therefore also making it a bigger deal. 

Written and published bij Eef Veldkamp, 08-12-2017.

[1] Harper, Douglas. 2017. "Civil". Online Etymology Dictionary. Lancaster: Douglas Harper. https://www.etymonline.com/word/civil

[2] Harper, Douglas. 2017. "Obedience". Online Etymology Dictionary. Lancaster: Douglas Harper. https://www.etymonline.com/word/obedience

[3] Thoreau, Henry D. “Civil Disobedience” Walden, Civil Disobedience: and other writings. Edited by William Rossi. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 3ed. 227.

[4] Ibid., 227.

[5] Ibid., 228.

[6] Ibid., 229.

[7] Ibid., 228.

[8] Ibid., 228.

[9] Ibid., 230.

[10] Ibid., 228.

[11] Ibid., 228-229.

[12] Ibid., 229.

[13] Ibid., 131.

[14] Ibid., 230.

[15] Ibid., 232.

[16] Ibid., 233-234.

[17] Ibid., 234.

[18] Ibid., 234.

[19] Ibid., 236.

[20] Ibid., 236.

[21] Ibid., 244-245.

[22] Ibid., 238.

[23] Ibid., 239.

[24] Ibid., 237.

[25] Ibid., 246.