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You are what you do

Civil Disobedience
Forfatter: Henry David Thoreau
For Henry David Thoreau, insight without action was of little value. He strongly advocated civil disobedience when conscience demanded it. 


Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) was a philosopher, naturalist and individualist, but also had a direct political agenda. He called for civil disobedience, saying, "If a government behaves in such a way that it commands you to practice injustice against your neighbor, I say: Break the law." He declared that "that government is the best that governs least." At best, a government is a "tool" (and expedient) created to serve specific purposes, "but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, not expedient," the philosopher believed

What you do. Thoreau did not hesitate to let action follow words. Once a year, the tax collector came to Thoreau's small hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, to demand an election fee of one and a quarter dollars. Thoreau refused to pay. "I don't want to give anyone money to buy a musket, and then hire a man to shoot someone," was the reason he stated. A patient officer asked Thoreau what he thought he should do. "Quit your job," answered the philosopher. This did not happen – however, Thoreau was arrested. His close friend and poet colleague Ralph Waldo Emerson, who heard about the incident, showed up at the prison and asked sternly, "Henry, why are you here?" The quick answer was, "Waldo, why aren't you here?" The next day was the prisoner released. The fee was paid – most likely by Emerson, who was known to arrange for his friends.

Thoreau's refusal to pay was a battle cry in the midst of a politically explosive era. We are in the middle of the 1800th century, in the run-up to the American Civil War, when slavery was the hottest battle theme. Massachusetts was the first colony in New England to allow slaveholding, and became the center of human trafficking throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Only at the end of the civil war in 1865 was slavery banned in the state. Thoreau and his family protested fiercely against Massachusetts legislation. In their homes, the fugitive slaves kept hidden and cared for the injured and ill. At high risk, Henry Thoreau followed them to the train station, bought tickets and followed along a distance on the road, to the north, to freedom and security.

The state is not equipped with superior sharpness or honesty, only with superior physical strength.

Greatness and fall height. In the essay "Civil Disobedience" Thoreau forms, who is best known for the natural tribute Walden, its criticism of people who do not think through their actions – including those who condemned slavery of the time. These could applaud the soldier who refused to serve in an unfair war, but at the same time support the government responsible for the war. They pat themselves on the shoulder for their opinions, but do not take the personal consequences of them. Actions based on principles, however – the insight on og the exercise of the right – can change conditions fundamentally and is profoundly revolutionary. They not only have the power to divide the state and church – it can divide families, yes, it can divide the individual itself, separating the diabolical from the divine. They challenge the idea of ​​human greatness and expose the fall height of the individual when making his or her choices.

The author raises rhetorical questions at the foundations of the institutions: Why do governments not value their wise minorities? Why don't they encourage voters to correct their mistakes? Why do they always crucify Christ and banish Copernicus and Luther? "About a thousand men, about a hundred, about ten men I could name, yes, if one honest man in the state of Massachusetts stopped holding slaves, refused to be part of this partnership with the state, and therefore was locked and beaten, would that would be the end of slavery in America, "Thoreau said. A military denier who bases his protest on moral courage will find himself in prison, the philosopher believed.

Free breathing. Thoreau lived a short and simple life, without earthly goods. The gifted Harvard student spared the classroom sparingly, though he knew his classics. He had studied navigation only to be able to steer his boat on the Concord River, open the door to nature's wonder for schoolchildren and friends – and play the flute under the wooden crowns. But his work at his father's pencil factory, where he breathed in health-threatening sawdust, caused him to contract pneumonia and died as a 44-year-old.

One of the philosopher's receivers read: "Simplification – simplification!" What you don't have, you can't lose, was the setting. His lifestyle was deliberate and willful. “If a state is ruled with reason, poverty and misery is a shame. If a state is not ruled with reason, wealth and honor are a shame, ”he quotes Confucius. The state, Thoreau points out, never confronts a person's entire dimension, neither the intellectual nor the moral – only the body. The state is not equipped with superior sharpness or honesty, only with superior physical strength. "I was not born to live under duress. I want to breathe as it suits me, ”he said.

The essence of Thoreau's message was: Love the divine in yourself. 

Important inspiration. Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago and died in 1862, at the beginning of the American Civil War. His appeal for civil disobedience was directed at gruesome social conditions. But the political will of the time both led and seduced him. His brief support for violent activists "on the right side" was a clear mistake. But the power of his ideas was contemporary in opinion, and carries universal validity. Thoreau was an inspiration for peace movements in the 20th century, with leading figures such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King at the forefront – not to mention his inspiration for the upcoming environmental movement.

The stingy individualist was obviously not charmed by authorities. But his reserved acceptance of regimes that worked as intended was at the same time an acceptance of an order that is problematic to write off in itself. The essence of Thoreau's message was: Love the divine in yourself. Then thought and action will contribute to a good society. And despite the ethical whip, he was a good-natured man to the last. At the death bed, a friend asked if he had now made peace with his God. Thoreau replied, "I've never quarreled with Him."

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

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