Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 1849

It's about: In this short essay, Mr. Thoreau argues that we as U.S.  citizens should not allow the government to overrule our consciences. It is our duty, he says, to make sure the government does not use us as agents of injustice. He compares the government to a machine, and argues that  the actions of conscientious citizens can act as counter-friction to slow the machine when it is produces injustice.

I thought: Meh. This essay wasn't as thrilling for me as I had expected, though it seems like everyone I know who has read this essay loved it. Sure, Thoreau makes some good points, and I do believe the views he espouses would be appropriate in some situations (as in the case of slavery.) However, these ideas certainly can't be universally applied, which is a big problem. What would happen if everyone would disobey the laws their conscience didn't agree with? I'll tell you - a mess. I bet most of Thoreau's WASPy male friends all had the same views as he did, though. If they were still the only ones that mattered like back in the mid 1800s, maybe this essay would be more applicable.

Though I liked Walden when I read it in 2009, I think Thoreau had the same issue as he did in Civil Disobedience. Sure, his views are interesting, but again, not applicable to everyone (even though he claims they should be.) Actually, I'm interested in what you think - for a theory to be legitimate, do you think it must be universally applicable? (I do.)

I read this essay as part of The Transcendental Event over at A Room of One's own. For a great overview of transcendentalism and links to other reviews of Transcendentalist works, go check out her post. 

Verdict: In between. 

Reading Recommendations: This is a quick read, and something a lot of people like to talk about - so even though it wasn't my favorite, I'd suggest you give it a try.

Favorite excerpts: "If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth--certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it require you to be the agent of injustive to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."

What I'm reading next: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner