Evaluate Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience in respect of content and style.
Give a critical estimate of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.
Answer: Thoreau gives his bold statement “that government is best which governs not at all,” in the very beginning of the essay, and strikes the key note of his essay, Civil Disobedience. The American government is as inflexible as a wooden gun. It is a mere tradition endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity. It is not doing any good to its people. A perfect government should be an expedient which would let men alone, and when it is most expedient the governed are most let alone by it. The government is an expedient, but an ideal form of government should be an expedient to a maximum; it should allow individuals to have maximum freedom, freedom of will and of actions—
“For government is an expedient by which men would fairly succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the government are most let alone by it.”
The government should interfere least with the thoughts and actions of an individual. The author wants to speak practically and as a citizen, that there should be at once a better government than what exists at the moment. That government should be the most expedient one which will allow maximum freedom to individuals, and will refrain from interference with any individual.
The author wants that conscience should be the guiding principle of government and law. He says,
“Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience, in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable?” Must the citizen even for a moment or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterwards.”
In a democratic country the majority is permitted to rule, but that does not mean they are in the right, and fairest to the minority. A perfect government should decide right and wrong on the basis of conscience, not majority. But unfortunately, men serve them as mere machines and those who serve the State with conscience are treated as enemies.
When the government of a country becomes tyrannical or inefficient, the people have the right of revolution. When the government acts in such a way that a large portion of the population turn slaves and be subjected to military law; it can be said that the country is overrun by a foreign army. People should then have the cause for revolution as soon as possible. When conscience is wounded, it should be regarded as blood-shed. A man’s real manhood and immortality flow out through such a wound and he bleeds to an everlasting death. So, a man’s duty should be to prevent such wounding of conscience so that he may not die everlastingly; he should bring about a peaceful revolution against any government that causes the wounding of his conscience. For example, if a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills, it would not be a violent or bloody measure. Rather it would be a violent measure to pay them, because paying it would enable the government to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is what Thoreau thinks to be a peaceful revolution, if any such revolution is possible. Such a revolution would be complete when—
“the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the government is accomplished.”
Voting is merely a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it. And the selection of a candidate for presidency through a convention does not ensure that a good man is set up for election for doing well to the country. It is not a man’s duty to devote him to the eradication of any wrong, but it is his duty to wash hands of it. If the law of the State has injustice as a built-in element, it will gradually wear out, but if it has a spring, and requires one to be the agent of injustice to another, that law must be broken. The people might have recourse to a peaceful revolution against an unfair government by not obeying its law, by the officers’ resigning their office. Sometimes a state has unjust law for its citizens. The state punishes those who break such laws or do not support them. In such circumstances Thoreau suggests several ways: the people can remain content to obey them, or they can endeavor to amend them, or they can obey them until they have succeeded in their endeavor to remove or eradicate them, or they can transgress them at once. People can also withdraw their direct and indirect support for the sustenance of such laws. That is the least measure they can take even if the direct revolution against such unjust laws is not possible.
In the essay, Thoreau does not suggest anarchy but a reform in the government. Gandhi was greatly influenced by his essay. He said, “You (the Americans) have given me a teacher in Thoreau.” Thoreau wants a better and reformed government, better citizenship, freedom of the individual. He opposes slavery and advises people to accept the dictates of the conscience. He wants a government which will least interfere with the individual and dispense full justice to all men.
Thoreau’s prose is highly distinctive. The essay is written in a prose style that has some remarkable features. It is conversational in tone, and has been invigorated with rhetorical figures, aphoristic and epigrammatic force of the sentence, and is strong, pure, rich, and closer to a genuine life rhythm. His prose is “purer, stronger, richer, and closer to a genuine life rhythm, than any of his contemporaries. In his best paragraphs the model is the hermit thrush. The intricate phrasings and rhythms flow with pure and spiritual beauty of its song and with its perfect unity.” His prose represents all that Thoreau was— a thinker, a man, a speaker and an actor of the truth.