This week marks the anniversary of David Henry Thoreau’s death in 1862, and with the ripples of last week’s Junior Doctors Strike still settling, it seems the perfect opportunity to dip into the great American poet’s thoughts on civil disobedience.
Thoreau can be quite a daunting prospect for many readers, being such a revered character not only in American literature but as a philosopher, historian and a political anarchist, he has become something of an idol for the great American dream. Born nearly two centuries ago in 1817, Thoreau was not widely celebrated in his own time, however his works have influenced some of the most prominent political figures of the past century and remain pertinent today.
He is perhaps best known for his book Walden in which he glorifies the simple life, using the passing of four season to symbolise human development. Having left the warmth and comfort of civilisation, Thoreau built a cabin in some woodland and lived by his own means where he devoted himself to study and writing.
It was said that Thoreau neither rejected civilisation nor fully embraced wilderness but sought a natural balance between nature and culture. The experience inspired a love of recreational hiking, canoeing and sparking a strong advocacy for conserving natural resources and preserving wilderness as public land.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life” – David Henry Thoreau, Walden
This sentiment, taken from Walden, is one that continues to inspire artists, musicians and writers to this day. In an evermore digital, online world in which mental health and well-being have become a prominent health concern, it’s hardly surprising that the beauty and tranquility of a natural environment appeals to the creative mind.
“A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.” – John Updike, 2004
The other side of Thoreau, which is perhaps more applicable to today’s poem, was his reputation as something of an anarchist. In 1849, his essay Civil Disobedience was published in the Aesthetic Papers championing the rights of the individual to self-governance, something we’ve touched on quite recently, the paper argued the importance of individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state.
The essay had been born out of Thoreau’s brief incarceration for refusing to pay his poll taxes on account of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and to slavery, which he strongly protested.
This simple act of non-violent resistance lasted but a single day, Thoreau deploring his aunt for paying his taxes and bail the very next day, but went on to inspire the likes of Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
The latter noted in his autobiography that Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience inspired the non-violent resistance of the Civil Rights Movement:
“I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau … The teachings of Throeau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.” – Martin Luther King Jr
Contracting bronchitis at the age of 42, Thoreau spent his last years revising and editing unpublished works, writing letters and journals as long as his strength would allow. In his final weeks, his aunt asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”
Conscience is instinct bred in the house,
Feeling and Thinking propagate the sin
By an unnatural breeding in and in.
I say, Turn it out doors,
Into the moors.
I love a life whose plot is simple,
And does not thicken with every pimple,
A soul so sound no sickly conscience binds it,
That makes the universe no worse than’t finds it.
I love an earnest soul,
Whose mighty joy and sorrow
Are not drowned in a bowl,
And brought to life to-morrow;
That lives one tragedy,
And not seventy;
A conscience worth keeping;
Laughing not weeping;
A conscience wise and steady,
And forever ready;
Not changing with events,
Dealing in compliments;
A conscience exercised about
Large things, where one may doubt.
I love a soul not all of wood,
Predestinated to be good,
But true to the backbone
Unto itself alone,
And false to none;
Born to its own affairs,
Its own joys and own cares;
By whom the work which God begun
Is finished, and not undone;
Taken up where he left off,
Whether to worship or to scoff;
If not good, why then evil,
If not good god, good devil.
Goodness! you hypocrite, come out of that,
Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.
I have no patience towards
Such conscientious cowards.
Give me simple laboring folk,
Who love their work,
Whose virtue is song
To cheer God along.