While Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” is quite persuasive, the ability for his rhetoric to reach the masses gets diminished when faced with the faithlessness of our new society. Oftentimes, literary works are taken part and parcel while leaving the defining points unappreciated and ignored. Thoreau writes with political and religious zeal, which can be offensive to some people today. While this fact remains true, the spiritual aspects of “Civil Disobedience” have the potential to give the essay great persuasive power.
To begin, Thoreau words fit into time and space regardless of the politics or religious temperature of the era. In our post-postmodern world, the lack of respect for organized religion creeps in among the people at every chance. While the masses are rejecting “church,” spirituality has its foothold in most hearts and minds as seen from my experience. Thoreau attempts to appeal to this innate characteristic through scripture references and outright expectation of spiritual centering on the audience’s part. “Civil Disobedience” stands as an example of one of the best religious paradigms to influence such a vast audience. The spiritual perspective on a mainly secular topic catches the eye as well with great success. The world audience in favor of his essay has embraced the reminders of spirituality and the power within each person to make a difference.
As Thoreau could never know how far reaching his words would be, the power his influence for positivity seems miraculous. The simplicity of his message is the power. When addressing the audience, the importance of recognizing the majority’s goodness finds a home. He points out how a few people will never be above the majority, or in other words the lawmakers are not more important than the people they represent. In one section of the essay, Thoreau slides in a biblical reference when he states, “It is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump” (Thoreau 5). Familiarity with the biblical reference in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 grants depth to the argument:
6 Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?
7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Thoreau not only expects the government to be the best it can be, but expects each individual to put forth a new and better self.
The individual’s importance to the success of the whole proves an integral point within “Civil Disobedience.” The concept persuades us to recognize the impact each individual has on the world in general. Moral, political, and spiritual responsibility come into play when realizing the many aspects of the impact each person has on others. When he says, “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence” (9), the cry for individual accountability and action can be heard.
With his statement comes a question: Where has the individual fled? The media spits out what we should say, look, and act like, while many of our citizens follow its direction. The responsibility to self and country feels like an antiquated idea, yet in all reality the time to rise to the occasion has been long coming. If we want to have individual rights, the individual must act for themselves and make a positive difference to ensure those rights are secure and available for future generations. Therefore, the individual acts as a representative of the group. The necessity of having goodness within the majority of each person is the key to successful interactions on the individual level, as well as on the group or representative plane. Good society must have individuals who choose to be considerate of their impact upon the whole.
Another spiritual aspect of the individual is the neighbor concept. A neighbor can be the persons who live on either side of you or at least on the same street, yet it also has abstract implications. In Christian teachings, we are taught to love our neighbor as ourselves and so forth. With this in mind, Thoreau’s statement, “ I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only” (14) holds a sort of condemnation within it. To suppose he speaks of the few families living nearby is absurd. The deeper expectations of spiritual centeredness persuade with strength, while presenting the disappointment in reality as well. Summertime is warm and full of life—some might even say summer equals easier times. Who would choose to be a neighbor for sunshine only and not help others in times of shade and even desolate winter? In all his words, Thoreau holds out hope that no fellow American would purposely choose to be such a one. The hopefulness of Thoreau’s message enlivens again in conclusion, “I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose…who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men” (18).
With hope and good-will, the individual can do good things to change the entire make up of the group in which it finds membership. Government should be for the people and by the people as outlined by the Founding Fathers of this great nation. Our God-given agency also grants the ability to make a difference—to be an asset to community, society, and country. As each citizen embraces the inner need for spirituality and uses it for betterment and progress, the world in which we live can become (and remain) a gladsome, peaceful place to be. The call to rely on our Creator persuades with simple words and Henry David Thoreau gives a simple approach. In a complicated world, simplicity still has the ability to persuade with swiftness and ease as seen in “Civil Disobedience.” May we all take a moment to read or reread it with the lens of wanting to be part of the solution, part of freedom for all, part of true liberty.
The Holy Bible. Web. 28 July 2020. <https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/nt/1-cor/5?lang=eng>.
Thoreau, Henry D. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays. “Civil Disobedience.” 1849. New
York: Dover, 1993. Print.