Henry David Thoreau Civil Disobedience

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Henry David Thoreau Civil Disobedience

  1. Thoreau says that "the government is an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it." (126) What does he have in mind? Do you agree? Why or why not?

  1. Why does Thoreau insist that "a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it"? (126) Explain why not. Compare with what Mill has to say about the "tyranny of the majority".

  1. How does Thoreau think that citizens should balance their duties to their conscience and to the law?

  1. How does Thoreau distinguish between those who serve the State "with their bodies," those who serve "with their heads" and those who serve "with their consciences"? (p. 127)

  1. What is the "right to revolution"? Why does Thoreau invoke it in case of the American government of his day? (p. 128)

  1. How does Thoreau criticize Paley, who "resolves all civil obligation into expediency"? What is the contrast that Thoreau makes between the "rule of expediency" and our duty to justice? (pp. 128-9)

  1. Why does Thoreau assert that, "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it"? (p. 130) What is the problem with resting content to let the electoral process run its course without further action in defense of the right? Explain what he means when he urges, "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." (p. 134)

  1. "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." (p. 132) What does he have in mind? Explain.

  1. Thoreau asks the following question: "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?" (p. 132) How does he respond to this question? Notice the distinction he draws at the bottom of p. 132 and top of p. 133.

  1. Why did Thoreau refuse to pay his taxes? (p. 131, and pp. 132ff)

  1. Why does Thoreau assert that "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place of a just man is also a prison"? (p. 134) What does he have in mind, when he refers to the government imprisoning people unjustly? How is he thinking of specifically?

  1. Thoreau writes that "the rich man…is always sold to the institution which makes him rich." (p. 135) What is the context in which he says this and what does he have in mind? Thoreau does not think it is possible for a rich man to consistently act justly in an unjust society. Why not? Do you agree?

  1. Notice what Thoreau has to say about the powerlessness of the multitude to "force" an individual to live this way or that, in contrast to the true power of the few who may be armed with "superior wit or honesty" or who "obey a higher law" (pp. 137-38) Compare with Socrates.

  1. Be aware, while reading his reflections on the Constitution on pp. 142-44, that at the time that Thoreau wrote this essay, the Constitution of the United States still gave sanction to slavery.

  1. Thoreau writes: "They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head." (p. 144) Compare with what Augustine reflections on the relationship between "eternal law" and "temporal law" in On Free Choice of the Will.

  1. How does Thoreau view the progress in political systems? What is his vision of a "really free and enlightened State"? (pp. 144-45)

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