Was Thoreau a revolutionary in thinking?
Answer:In the essay Civil Disobedience, Thoreau appears as a social rebel and a critic of American government and society of his time. He believes in economy and simplicity, and avoids show and pomp and extravagance. He is very much against the business minded people, and the spirit of commercialism.
The American government is merely a tradition. It endeavors to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant it is losing some of its integrity. It is not as much flexible as it should be. It is rather as stiff as a wooden gun to the people. This government is functioning as a nominal medium through which the people can express their will. The people are satisfied that they have an organ through which they can express their feelings and thoughts and activates. But it actually shows how successfully people can be imposed on, for the advantage of the government. It has never furthered any enterprise. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. What has been achieved so far has been possible only because of the character inherent in the American people. The people would have done somewhat more if the government had not got in its way sometimes. 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. It should interfere least with the thoughts and actions of an individual. The government should be the most expedient one which will allow maximum freedom to individuals, and will refrain from interference with any individual.
Thoreau thinks that there should be a peaceful revolution against an unfair government. He expresses his paradoxical idea that the true place for a just man is prison under an unjust government that imprisons anybody unjustly. In a slave state prison is the only house for free man. It is there in prison that a free man can abide with honor. But such imprisonment will have its effect. The influence of the imprisoned persons will not end there. Truth is stronger than error by many degrees, and though an unfair government might try to suppress the truth by imprisoning free man, truth will assert itself. When a citizen casts his vote, he does not do it merely by casting a paper, he does cast his whole weight. Minority is not even a minority when it conforms to the majority. But it becomes more powerful than the majority when it puts its whole weight through the truth it stands for. 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 bloody measure to pay them, for paying it would enable the government to commit more 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 refused allegiance and when the officers have resigned their office. 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 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. It is a matter of extraordinary boldness on the part of the author to encourage such a “peaceable” revolution.
Thoreau has a revolutionary idea about the imprisonment of a man by his state. The author himself was once imprisoned for not paying poll-tax for six years. He thinks that the state was foolish in imprisoning him, for the state seems to have thought that he was mere flesh and blood, without any spirit. He did not feel confined for a moment, rather he felt much freer, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. Actually, the state could not reach his spirit, so they decided to punish his body. The state is armed merely with superior physical strength, not with superior wit and honesty. It confronts only man’s body, and never intentionally confronts a man’s senses. Though the author was imprisoned, he was free, for he never was born to be forced. So, the purpose of the state in curbing a man’s freedom by imprisoning him will be foiled; it will be absolutely foolish on the part of the State to imprison a man.
Voting is merely a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it. The selection of candidate for presidency through a convention does not ensure that a good man is set up for election for doing well to the country. A person casts his 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. There is little virtue in the action of the masses of men. The majority will vote for the abolition of slavery when they are indifferent to slavery or when there will be but little slavery left to be abolished.
Sometimes, a state has unjust laws for its citizens. The state punishes those who break the 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 overcome or remove them or they can transgress them at once.
So, Thoreau is definitely a social rebel, He has expressed his revolutionary idea about imprisonment, unjust government, unjust laws and conventional voting system. He has proposed many ways of making revolution peacefully against the unjust things.