The 10-Book Challenge: Book #5

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

This is classified as an essay, but it fits in with my current 10-Book Challenge pretty well. I think it was a perfect follow up to Hobbes’ Of Commonwealth (see the Book #4 entry).

Thoreau argued that the individual should obey his own conscience before obeying the rules and requirements of the state. “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”

The larger issue here was his disagreement with the United States’ tolerance of slavery. But he framed his thoughts on this matter around a one night stay in his local jail (he had refused to pay a particular tax and was arrested). He argued that by accepting a certain punishment (in his case, a night in jail), instead of avoiding it by yielding to the state’s demands, a person can become a much more influential spokesperson against the state’s actions.

“If any think that their influence would be lost there … they do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person.”

The government, he wrote, can only justly derive its authority through the sanction and consent of the governed. Otherwise, that authority becomes an impediment.

“If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies,” he wrote. “And so a man.”

This is a pretty quick read but incredibly well written and thoughtful. Thoreau’s message still resonates.

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