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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.

There’s no real word for Active Nonviolence. Nonviolence is one of those “non” words — a “not” word. But it is much more than not-violence. It is active, creative, courageous, sometimes complicated, often difficult, organized, and driven.

It’s difficult to describe, build, or recognize something that doesn’t have a name. Did the word smiths purposefully write Nonviolence out of our language and therefore out of our understanding?

Even Gandhi struggled with what to call the Nonviolent fight for India’s independence. He announced a contest to find the best word to describe the new powerful movement. Satyagraha, roughly translated from Sanskrit to mean “Truth-Force,” won the contest. But the word Satyagraha hasn’t entirely caught on… it doesn’t really roll off the tongue.

In his book, Nonviolence: 25 Lessons From The History of a Dangerous Idea (meaning “dangerous” to the status quo) Mark Kurlansky asks what if “war” was a non-word? What if the only word for war was “nonpeace?” When we would talk about waging nonpeace, our natural question would be, “Why? Why don’t we want peace?” Nonpeace seems abnormal and impotent. It’s a non-word afterall.

Kurlansky’s book goes on to explore historical examples of Nonviolence, question some of the reasons people support violence, and delve into the “25 Lessons” — all of which are summarized at the end of the book. Here are some “lessons” we found particularly interesting:

  • Practitioners of Nonviolence are seen as enemies of the state.
  • Once a state takes over a religion, the religion loses its Nonviolent teachings.
  • A rebel can be defanged (made less threatening to the status quo) and can be co-opted by making them into a saint after death.
  • Wars do not have to be sold to the general public if they can be carried out by an all-volunteer professional military.
  • A conflict between a violent and a Nonviolent force is a moral argument. If the violent side can provoke the Nonviolent side into violence, the violent side has won.
  • Violence does not resolve. It always leads to more violence.

Thanks for stopping by.  And thank you for all that you do.

🙂 matt