How does Thoreau refute Paley’s argument that people should submit to the civil government? Do you think that Thoreau is more acceptable than Paley or vice versa?
What is Paley’s view of expediency? How does Thoreau discard Paley’s view of expediency?
Answer: William Paley, a British thinker, has given his opinion on the question of people’s submission to the government. Thoreau has discarded Paley’s opinion and given his own opinion. Thoreau is more acceptable than Paley in this regard.
Paley proceeds to say that since the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God that the established government be obeyed, but no longer. If we accept this principle, the justice of every particular case of resistance to government is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one hand, and of the probability and expense of redressing it on the other. About his, every man should judge for himself. The author shows Paley’s opinion thus:
Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions, in his chapter on the ‘Duty of Submission to Civil Government’, resolves all civil obligation into expediency, and he proceeds to say, “that 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 inconveniency, it is the will of God that the established government be obeyed, and no longer…”
But Thoreau rejects the view of Paley on the ground that the latter seems 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 at any cost. Justice should be the criterion for all action, whether of an individual, or of a people. Though justice seems inconvenient to Paley, it is the most essential element of all human activities. Thoreau gives a beautiful analogy to clarify his point. He says, “If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man I must restore it to him though I must drown myself.”
Thoreau shows that there are very many cases in the arena of social and political matters which cannot be considered as expedient. In those cases the individual as well as the people must do justice at any cost. This is illustrated in the supposition that if somebody has snatched away a plank from a drowning man, he must return it to him even if it means that he himself will be drowned. This involves absolute justice, and Thoreau wants this kind of activity from the people in a democratic state. In referring to the actual state of things of the writer’s time, he mentions the existence of slavery and the ongoing war with Mexico. The writer wants that if the government and the people of his country should with absolute justice be governed by conscience they should give up both the things; the government should stop its war with Mexico, and abolish the system of slavery. This they should do even if they mean death to them, or if they cost them their existence as a nation. Thoreau’s analogy is appropriate in the sense that, if instead of doing that the man who wrested plank from a drowning man and has saved him, he has actually lost his soul. Likewise, the American people must cease to hold slaves, and must stop war on Mexico, though it costs them their existence as a people.
Most nations agree with Paley in their practice. But Thoreau’s question is whether Massachusetts does exactly what is right at the present crisis. The answer is that she does not. The people of Massachusetts are not doing justice at the cost of their interest. They are not supporting the cause of stopping war on Mexico, or abolition of slavery.
Regarding the people’s attitude towards the government of a country, Paley and Thoreau have diametrically opposite views. Paley’s view does not take any consideration of man’s conscience or – the development of human qualities in a man’s attitude towards the government of a country. The attitude prescribed by Paley is, of course, very much technical; it takes care of man’s safety in material things and in political dimension, but does not seem to take any consideration of his human qualities. He is thoroughly a materialist thinker. But Thoreau is an idealist, and he gives a stress on man’s spiritual sides. According to him, people of a country should not obey the government if their conscience is jeopardized, or their human qualities are thwarted. When conscience is wounded, we should regard it 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.
From the view point of human justice and fairness, Thoreau’s opinion is more acceptable than that of Paley. Whereas Paley insists on expediency for the sake of placid existence of the people, Thoreau puts the question of justice to the forefront and insists that people’s actions must pave the way for justice, whatever cost it may involve. To Thoreau, 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 action. It should interfere least with the thoughts and actions of an individual. There should be at once a better government than what exists at the moment. The government should be the most expedient one which will allow maximum freedom to the individual.