Thoreau's words grip us in our times
But in these times Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” grabs us by the lapels, stares us in the eyes and firmly demands that we act on what we believe.
We are reading “Civil Disobedience” for our Hillsdale Book Group. For me “Reading” doesn’t quite describe the experience. Call it an encounter or engagement.
I’ll find out about the others’ experience when we meet next Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Multnomah Art Center Senior Lounge. (I provide the specifics because you are invited.)
Thoreau’s essay has sought me out in this time of war, moral depravity, subservience to the state and political posturing.
Thoreau’s words hold me accountable, and I am coming up short.
His essay published in 1849 resounds across nearly 16 decades—two end-to-end life spans.
He doesn’t have to mention “Iraq” or “George W. Bush” or even “Hillary Rodham Clinton” for us to know that he somehow anticipated them—and us.
“A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is that you may see a file of soldiers—colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all—marching in admirable order over the hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed….The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies….
“Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others—as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers and office-holders—serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God.
“A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense,…serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it…."
And then he adds:
“What I have to do is to see… that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
Re-reading those words, I thought of our Hillsdale protests against the war. A dozen or so of us gathered at Sunset Boulevard and Capitol Highway again on Friday evening, bearing witness to our opposition as the evening commuters droned past.
It is not enough. Through our taxes and or polite opposition to our government’s policies, we are still “lending ourselves to the wrong which we condemn.”
In protest to America’s war with Mexico, Thoreau famously refused to pay his poll tax. He spent a single night in the Concord jail. The stay was a one-night wonder, an example, but he didn’t make civil disobedience a habit.
That said, “Civil Disobedience,” which recounts the experience, inspired others, among them Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.
Today, the words of the 19th Century Concord recluse hold a mirror before our faces and ask: And what about you?