I recently read a chapter in Ira Chernus’ American Nonviolence in which he discusses the contributions of author Henry David Thoreau to the Nonviolence movement. I was surprised to learn that ironically, while people tend to count Thoreau among the heroes of Nonviolence, he “never actually embraced the principle of Nonviolence” (54). He supported violent revolutionary acts such as John Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry.

Neither did Thoreau have confidence in the efforts of social justice activists. Thoreau saw social justice activists, at least those working to change policy and institutions, as wasting their time – he thought it was more important to change “individual souls” rather than social institutions: he wrote, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root” (52).

While I disagree with Thoreau’s confidence in violent activism, I agree with him that the success of the current revolution lies in the hearts of the people. He urged reformers to look within themselves and change themselves rather than trying to change others. I would expand his argument to include that we should still try to educate people in order to spread awareness (otherwise social change will wither on the vine) – but reminding people of their own values and showing them how to live their lives aligned with those values is hardly “changing” people; it’s waking them (I think Thoreau would agree – as I’ll explain below).

Thoreau did recognize that individuals were the building blocks of society and of societal institutions and that “one [person] expressing [their] own opinion amounted to the re-origination of many of the institutions of society” (53). What he finds to be of utmost interest and importance is waking each individual to follow their own conscience — even when this means breaking unjust laws.

His philosophy of commitment to conscience led to his own short stay (one night) in jail for refusing to pay taxes which supported the unjust U.S. war against Mexico and a government (the U.S.) that supported slavery. This experience led to his writing the infamous “Civil Disobedience” which in turn influenced Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, and countless Nonviolence activists. This contribution to Nonviolence theory is why Thoreau is still exalted as a Nonviolence theorist.

Thoreau’s way of thinking moves beyond the thinking of Thomas Hobbes, who believed that any government was better than no government. Hobbes believed that because people were innately selfish and brutish, we must transfer our right to self-rule (and even violence) to the state. Hobbes believed the government is a necessary evil. To Hobbes, there is no such thing as an unjust law because right and wrong is determined by the law.

Thoreau on the other hand, sees justice as our primary loyalty, not laws. He foresaw a day when this adherence to conscience by masses of individuals would lead to the obsolescence of the state — what Thoreau called a “glorious State.” Rather than looking to the state for guidance and punishment, each would look to themselves and their own good conscience for what is morally right. Through personal awakening, personal responsibility, and a shared commitment to our interconnected world, the state would wither and become unnecessary.

We will be held responsible for the future we build. And future generations will celebrate or suffer because of us.  It’s up to each of us to live our conscience no matter how difficult that may be. As Thoreau put it, “Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.”

All one,

🙂 m

Chernus, Ira. 2004. “Henry David Thoreau.” 45-55 in American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.