Jens Oliver Meiert

Highlights from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

Post from August 27, 2016 (↻ June 12, 2017), reflecting Jens the .

As I love learning I read many and quite random books at that. As my reading follows a process that always leads to a document with highlights—and random factoids—from what I just read for further study, I’ll here begin a series featuring those highlights for those books I read that are, as carefully as I could verify, in the public domain. Here, from Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (1849).

Emphasis as it appears in the original work may be missing, and my own edits, though marked, may be broad. Then, important: By sharing these highlights I neither implicitly endorse nor recommend respective authors and their views. Assume that I know little of the authors, and that I have a nuanced view on the matter. (Everything the highlights can tell is that—much like the books themselves—for some reason or other I found them of interest.) When detailed understanding of my views is important, ask me.

The cover of “Civil Disobedience.”

“That government is best which governs least” […].

The standing army is only an arm of the standing government.

[…] government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished […].

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

[…] the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.

I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.

[…] a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.

Others—as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders—serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few—as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men—serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.

[…] “so long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconvenience, it is the will of God… that the established government be obeyed—and no longer. This principle being admitted, the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of the probability and expense of redressing it on the other.” Of this, [Paley] says, every man shall judge for himself. But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may.

There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing […]. At most, they give up only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them.

Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. […] A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. […] Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.

If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.

Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?

Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil.

I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should be doing something wrong.

[…] if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name—if ten honest men only—ay, if one honest man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.

Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.

A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. […] If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.” […] Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded?

[…] the rich man—not to make any invidious comparison—is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him[.]

The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor.

[People] cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it. […] if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in outward respects. It will not be worth the while to accumulate property; that would be sure to go again.

“If a state is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a state is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are subjects of shame.”—Confucius

[…] the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength.

If a plant cannot live according to nature, it dies; and so a man.

If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.

[Statesmen and legislators] speak of moving society, but have no resting-place without it. […] They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and expediency.

[…] the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire.

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to—for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well—is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed.

Is a democracy […] the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?

Read the whole book: Civil Disobedience.

About the Author

Jens Oliver Meiert, photo of July 27, 2015.

Jens Oliver Meiert is a developer (O’Reilly, W3C, ex-Google) and philosopher. He experiments with art and adventure. Here on meiert.com he shares and generalizes and exaggerates some of his thoughts and experiences.

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Last update: June 12, 2017.

“What you need is not a bigger hammer but a bigger heart.”