Henry David Thoreau: Civil disobedience or what?

Nina Strohminger '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Henry David Thoreau spends most of "Civil Disobedience" in a sea of ambivalence, wavering between respect and admonition for the State. (Example: at one point he asserts, "the best government is that which rules not at all"-- later he makes a point to distinguish himself from "no-government men", saying that what he wants is not no government, but "at once better government".) In the following passage, Thoreau provides us with a mini-manifesto on the 'powers' of the State:

"Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man's sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit 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 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 have this way or that by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live? When I meet a government which says to me, "Your money or your life," why should I be in haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not responsible for the successful working of that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grown and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man." (10)

Based on this passage, and the rest of "Civil Disobedience" for that matter, does it seem that Thoreau believes in a democratic system of government or not? Could the argument he uses above be applied to any political system, given that he is invoking the ultimate supremacy of individual will and 'human nature' (easily manipulated attributes-- cf. "If a plant cannot live..." &cetera)?

Is Thoreau a radical or a reactionary?


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Last modified 6 March 2002