Henry-David-ThoreauThis chapter in Ira Chernus’ American Nonviolence discusses the contributions of U.S. author Henry David Thoreau to the nonviolence movement.  Jumping to the end of the chapter, Chernus points out that, ironically, while people tend to count Thoreau among the heroes of nonviolence, Thoreau “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: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root” (52).  He urged reformers to look within themselves and change themselves rather than trying to change others.

Still it seems he recognized that these individuals were the building blocks of society and societal institutions and that “one man expressing his own opinion amounted to the re-origination of many of the institutions of society” (53).  What Thoreau found to be of utmost interest and importance was waking each individual to follow their 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 U.S. war against Mexico and also a government (the U.S.) that supported slavery.  This experience led to his writing his infamous “Civil Disobedience” which in turn influenced Mohandas Gandhi 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, that 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.  The state would wither and become unnecessary.  Chernus calls this Thoreau’s “political ideal” of “enlightened anarchy” (51).

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

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