HENRY DAVID THOREAU: ON THE DUTY OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
Henry David Thoreau ( July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher. He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay “Civil Disobedience” (originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government”), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.
He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life’s true essential needs.
Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Thoreau is sometimes referred to as an anarchist. In “Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau wrote: “I heartily accept the motto: ‘That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe: ‘That government is best which governs not at all;‘ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”
In “Walden” Thoreau writes:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Thoreau’s hut at Walden Pond which he built himself
When I was in high school, long before I started yoga and dreamed of becoming a sannyasin in the Himalayas (which I never did) and becoming a Buddhist nun in Sarnath (which I never did) I read the book “Walden” by Thoreau as part of the literature class. It was love at first sight. I decided that I was going to be a hermit in the woods (which I never did).
Walden was, and still is, my go to bible when life gets too complicated. Like now.
It seems that the world is going crazier, not by the month, not by the week, but by the day, and all I can do is watch, totally flabbergasted at how things are evolving. Thoreau’s beard would turn instantly white.
The American author John Updike said of the book, “A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”
Essentially, Thoreau pointed out that all throughout history human beings have had segregations: the us against them, the high against the low, the lords against the slaves, the rich against the poor.
In the twentieth century in India there still the caste system: the Brahmins and the pariahs,
He was against slavery, and against paying taxes, because he said that the money he paid would go to the soldiers fighting the civil war. He did not approve, because he was a pacifist. So he did not pay, and was put in jail for disobeying.
On this he wrote an ironical essay called : “My life in jail”, which in reality lasted only one day, and in which he described his ‘life in jail’. Looking out of the window, eating and writing, talking to his room mate, a ‘dangerous’ criminal who, while drunk and sleeping in someone’s barn, had put fire to it, smoking a cigarette while drunk. The experience of ‘his prisons’ lasted only one day, because his aunt paid the taxes for him, and he was released, at which he was furious, because it went against his principles.
In the twentieth century we saw maybe the most devastating segregation of all times: the mass extinction of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis in the extermination camps.
In order to hunt the Jews they were obliged to wear the ‘star of David’ on their clothes, so as to be easily recognizable, and they were not allowed to have any business . The Arian race against the non-Arian race, and the attempt to eradicate the last one from the face of the earth.
Up till the nineteen sixties in the US there was the segregation of the blacks from the whites to the point that there were special buses, schools etc. for the blacks. They were not allowed in white bars, white restaurants, and other white activities of (white) society. I am old enough to remember the day that four or five policemen escorted a little six year old black girl to a white school in which her parents had enrolled her, staying with her till the end of the day and bringing her back to her parents to prevent her from being lynched by the white parents. There was outrage from ‘white’ society and we all know what happened afterwards.
1942, 1962, zoom forward to 2021. Not even 60 years later. To be precise, 59 years later……
The event of a virus.
People getting sick and die. People get sick and die every year from influenza, from cancer, from diabetes. People die, and they also die on the roads in droves.
Somehow the virus becomes a tool for something else.
By making a lot of propaganda people getting scared. Scared people ask the governments to ‘do something’. The governments do something. They produce miraculously after three months a vaccine out of thin air. Normally that takes three to four years. People run with a sigh of relief to the vaccine centres.
And those who have segregation in their DNA and in their plans for the world have found the Trojan horse. Lo and behold, those who obey and let the horse in become the new Arians. They get rewards, special treatments, and like the cherry on the cake they get a nice little piece of paper, white, to fit into the wallet. With that all doors open, including airplane doors, bus doors, restaurants, clubs, cinemas, they can get married, they can divorce, they can make love, they can go to funerals, they can die.
All the other ones who do not have this little piece of paper become the pariahs, les misérables, the invisibles, the ones to keep at a distance. A déja vue from 1942. Will there be concentration camps? Will there be buses going through the cities to round the non-Arians up? Will they have to wear a badge so that they are recognizable like people who have leprosy? Will they have to have a little drum to announce when they are coming too close? Who knows.
The segregation is in full swing. The Aryans show each other that pretty little paper, and shake their heads in anger over the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people who for one reason or the other do not have it. They call them egoists, because they are not willing to sell their bodies for 2 Euros to some entity who then, in all probability, has control over their bodies for the rest of their lives.
One of the reasons, which would be up Thoreau’s sleeve, is the principle of having autonomy over one’s life, one’s body and one’s decisions. One’s body is something you really possess, it is yours, nobody else’s. It is the only thing that is really yours. You do not own anything else. Everything else you have is borrowed. Once the body is corrupted, once you have surrendered your body to an outside agency, it is game over.
The word ‘principle’ means a ‘moral rule’.
The pariahs, le misérables, look on unbelievingly at the lightning speed with which the past, the sacrifices of the previous generations, the principles, the moral rules, and even friendships, are
thrown in the dust bin, forgotten. The persecutions, the exclusions, the camps and the horror of fifty-nine years ago are forgotten thanks to a little 2 euro white paper.
Thoreau is turning around in his grave, mumbling something in his beard, but the noise of the twenty-first century world is drowning out his words.
May Brahma, Avalokiteśvara , God, Allah, the Universe have mercy on all of us.
Aum mane padme hum