Discuss the theme of David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience


What do you think Thoreau is trying to bring home to the readers in Civil Disobedience?

josBd (2)Answer:  In literature, theme means the central or dominating idea, the message implicit in a work. Abrams has defined theme thus: “… the term is more usually applied to a thesis or doctrine which an Imaginative work is designed to incorporate and make persuasive to the reader.” Theme is an abstract concept, seldom stated directly, but most often indirectly expressed through recurrent images, actions, characters, and symbols and must be inferred by the reader, or spectator. Theme differs from subject. Subject, generally is the topic or thing described in a subject. Theme, on the other hand, is a comment, an observation or insight about the subject. For example, the subject of a poem may be a flower, but its theme may be a comment on the fleeting nature of existence. It is not necessary that a work must have a theme. Some works, like a detective story, may be written primarily for entertainment.

In his essay Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau, is trying to bring home to us certain ideas relating to civil disobedience, or disobedience to government on the part of the citizens, certain ideas are intimately concerted with the civil disobedience.

Thoreau asserts that freedom of the individual is of utmost importance in a democratic state. He says, “That government is best which governs least.” But men cannot have such a government unless they are prepared for it. Such a government will leave things to people’s conscience, and people will work conscientiously through such government. At the moment, though it is generally assumed that the government is only an expedient, it is really inexpedient. Next, he thinks that conscience should be the guiding principle of government or law. In a democratic state the majority is permitted to rule, but this does not mean that they are in the right, and fairest, position to the minority. A perfect government should decide right and wrong on the basis of conscience, not majority.


The mass of men serve the state as machines. They do not exercise judgment or moral sense. Yet they are regarded as good citizens. But those who serve the state with conscience are commonly treated as enemies.

The next idea that is intimately connected with the idea of civil disobedience is people’s right to revolution when their government becomes tyrannical or inefficient. When the government acts in such a way that a large portion of the population turn slaves and are subjected to military law, that country may be considered as overrun by foreign army, and people should have the cause for revolution as soon as possible. a government proves tyrannical or oppressive when the freedom of individual citizen is curtailed, when the majority rule without any consideration for individual citizen’s freedom of thought and action, and the conscience of a man is not allowed to decide the question between right and wrong. To live under such a government and to pay allegiance to it is tantamount to degrading men’s higher self, which is based on clear conscience. Thoreau expresses this idea in a very powerful way thus:

“Now, what are they? Men at all? Or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?” If a man does not wish to debase himself, or to become a mere slave, or a mere animal devoid of all human qualities, he should revolt against such a government.

According to the author, voting is merely a sort of gaming like checkers, or backgammon with a slight moral tinge. A person casts vote as he thinks right, but he is not vitally concerned that right should prevail. He leaves it to the majority. But a wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it prevail through the power of the majority. Conscience is the quality in man which enables him to do justice to all his fellow beings, and behave with others with all fairness. Since a state consists of men and since men possess conscience, then conscience should be the ruling principle, not majority. In a democratic state, the majority should not decide what is right and what is wrong. It is the man’s God-gifted quality—conscience, which should decide right and wrong. Conscience was given by the Creator to a man to enable him to distinguish between right and wrong. A man’s a man first and secondly a citizen of state.

A man may not be able to eradicate any wrong; it is not his duty to eradicate it, rather it is his duty to wash his hands of it. Thoreau suggests that a man should take up this attitude of passivity towards the eradication of anything evil or wrong when he is not powerful enough to remove it by his own action. To support any evil or wrong is morally wrong; to help sustain it is still wrong. But what can a man do when, in spite of his strongest wish, he cannot eradicate an evil or wrong? In such a circumstance, it is wrong on his part to wash his hands of it, that is, to give up all responsibilities for sustaining it. He should not give it any thought even. The active eradication of evil may sometimes involve people in loss of safety; they may incur the displeasure or even vengeance by the government. Thoreau’s suggestion is that in case of the existence of evil, people should try not to actively eradicate it, but to have recourse; to the passive resistance to the government by withholding their indirect support to the cause of the government.


The most disinterested virtue sustains the broadest and most prevalent error. The people who disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yet yield their allegiance and support to it, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters. They are the most serious obstacles to reform. If a man is cheated out of a single dollar by them, he should try to get the full amount back, and to see that he is never cheated again.

There are several options open to us for unjust laws. We can be content to obey them or endeavor to amend them, or obey them until we have succeeded, or transgress them at once.

There should be a peaceful revolution against an unfair government. If a thousand men were not to pay tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent measure as it would be to pay them, because that would mean enabling the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood. When the laws of a state are unjust, or when the State imprisons a just man for violating such unjust laws, there should be peaceful revolution by the people. Such a revolution would be complete when the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office. When conscience is wounded, we should regard it as bloodshed. 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 the 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.