Henry David Thoreau left us two most important options when things go very bad in this world: a bloodless but effective way of saying "no" and a fitting advice to rely on ourselves. He did this through his famous works, "Civil Disobedience" and "Walden."
Civil Disobedience" is about showing protest by resisting the orders of the authority being opposed. When authority conflicts with one's true values, the person has the right and duty to defend his or her conscience, and open rebellion does not have to be bloody. Thoreau advises what he himself practiced: that of refusing to obey the law, which he finds unacceptable and unjust:
Law never made men a whit more just and by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice."
Essay on "Civil Disobedience") as he did when he preferred imprisonment to supporting the Mexican Way by paying his poll tax in 1846. In this essay, he showed that men can subvert unjust laws through "passive resistance," a political action adopted by political leaders worldwide and noted by other prominent men and women in history.
One of these leaders was Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi against the British. Martin Luther King, Jr. also adopted it and said so in his Autobiography (Chapter 2):
became convinced that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David
Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest."
This essay impresses upon everyone that it is not only an option to be able to reject unjust laws, but that it is also an obligation to disobey them. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A points to Thoreau's very important contribution by having taught and lived this concept.
The renowned and most inspiring essay also became a motivation force to civil right activists who fought against racial segregation and racial discrimination in the United States, which Thoreau likewise opposed (MSN Encarta 2002).
This essay evolved to become a historical, political and philosophical landmark and object of admiration by many. In the 940s, it inspired by the Danish in their political actions (Lenat 2002). In 1950s, opponents of McCarthyism adhered to it. In the 1960s, it was a strong influence in the fight against South African apartheid (Lenat), and in the 1970s, it became an appropriate concept to an entire generation of anti-war groups.
It is believed that Thoreau was moved into writing this essay that night he was jailed for refusing to pay poll taxes. In 1848, he read the first draft of this essay as an oration at the Concord Lyceum until it was published the following year under the title, "Resistance to Civil Government." It was a rending piece of objection to slavery (in the South at that time) and against the Mexican-American War of the same period - an offensive which, to his view, merely displayed arrogance and without any justification (SparkNotes 2002), because of the belief in the "Manifest Destiny" concept behind the conquest of surrounding lands by America.
Thoreau, at that time, shared the growing and gnawing sentiments of a growing number of anti-slavery and anti-war groups, and his essay gave full and lasting expression of those sentiments and urged for the primary of the human:
think we should be men first and subjects afterwards."
Thoreau's essay also caught the attention and interest of the famous Russian novelist
Leo Tolstoy. It was, likewise, an eye-opener to thinkers and other wise men in other countries who were looking for nagging answers to nagging questions on how to live.
Thoreau's other famous work, "Walden," is as notable as inspiring and ennobling of man as the first work, and a necessary sequel to it. In promoting libertarianism and individualism by means of expressing one's negation to laws he finds unjust and inhuman, it becomes necessary for the person to manifest that disagreement by living outside of that society that disrespects one's individualism and humanity. In his own case, he decided to leave the society of his time and live in a crude hut near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts for two years and living simply and directly with and in nature. There, he lived in utter simplicity and showed through his example that this could be done by those who disapprove the way societies are run.
While in Walden Pond, he supported himself by taking odd jobs, such as gardening, carpentry and surveying, which, in themselves, were nature-based occupations. But he worked only in so far as he needed to survive, because much of the time was spent on metaphysical contemplation and observation of nature (Microsoft Encarta). His work bears the name of the place where he set up residence, both to demonstrate his disapproval of social laws of his time and to take up a personal study of nature, which he found of primary importance in this world.
A look at the background of Thoreau's life reveals and explains his inclinations. He was born to freethinking and relatively cultured parents, and poor but diligent individuals who could make do with little but felt content. They made pencils for a living. Despite the humble conditions, Thoreau made it through Concord Academy and at Harvard College with a degree in literature, philosophy, theology, history and the languages, making him a cultured person. He first taught in school but quit teaching when he realized he could not inflict corporal punishment on his pupils, indicating his natural mildness and kindness on others. He also established a small progressive school, which stressed the importance of intellectual hunger and curiosity and pitted it against memorization by rote. He obtained a brother's help in running it, but poor health soon forced him to move the supervision of the school entirely to his brother.
Then he met Ralph Waldo Emerson in whose company his search would end. Emerson was a prominent American philosopher, essayist and poet. Emerson exposed Thoreau to the Transcendentalism Movement, which derived its foundation from English and German Romanticism, Indian Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, and the beliefs of Confucius and Mencius. It focused on the individual heart, mind and soul as the center of the universe and made material things of secondary importance to man's nature, it appealed to Thoreau. It stressed on self-reliance and self-esteem, the very center of his thoughts, and hence helped those thoughts take their proper shape in his rejection of social norms, traditions and values that contradict or demean personal vision and inner values.
Thoreau was eulogized by Emerson in so many words after Thoreau died. Emerson wrote that his friend was capable of "far greater accomplished" than he achieved. Although Emerson, at that time, already achieved national stature, he admitted to the accomplishments of this one-time minor follower who then had already overshadowed him in stature. (Emerson). Emerson had high praises for his simplicity and sincerity in the causes he promoted:
He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself.
A he wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise.
He was a speaker and actor of the truth, born such and was ever running into Dramatic situations from this cause..."
Emerson went over to discuss Thoreau's civil heroism in saying that his younger
Friend was an exemplar American:
No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversion from English and European manners tastes almost reached contempt. He listened impatiently to news from London circles... Why can they not live as far…