Rewind book: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau (1849)

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm

On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
by Henry David Thoreau


As pro-democracy protesters continue to peacefully fill Hong Kong's streets, despite tear gas and paid thugs, we're reminded of past successes.

Of Mahatma Gandhi's fight for Indian independence, of Martin Luther King's American civil rights movement - and of the man who inspired both, by being the first to define nonviolent resistance: author, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, in his essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" (first printed in Aesthetic Papers by G.P. Putnam in 1849).

An abolitionist, Thoreau had returned from two years' isolation at Walden Pond inflamed by America's slavery crisis and its war with Mexico during the mid-1800s. It was soon after that he delivered the speech that became "Civil Disobedience".

"That government is best which governs the least," Thoreau begins. And for the next few thousand words, he lucidly, philosophically and passionately argues his discontent with taxes that would prolong slavery and encourage expansionist warfare.

His arguments are largely based on respect for the individual, rather than the collective mass, and Thoreau spends much of the essay questioning one's relation to the state and the possibilities of true independence.

However, what made Thoreau's refusal to pay taxes and thus create the idea of civil disobedience so significant wasn't just that he disobeyed the law - but that he publicly protested against it and brought light to the law's injustice in a nonviolent manner. He risked prison for what he believed in, even spending a stimulating night in jail, and inspired many of his comrades to do the same.

That outright refusal to obey the rules because they challenged one's moralistic beliefs separated Thoreau and his work from the many blasé political writers of his era. He might at times go too far, with his hatred for Western democracy, dismissal of the voting system, and generally massive ego sometimes coming off more Russell Brand than a man of intellect. But his ardent and justifiably angry contentions mean that "Civil Disobedience" inspires in modern times.

At a time when greed clouds the judgment of governments, racism and xenophobia threaten to destroy civility, and peaceful methods are met with acts of violence, Thoreau's thoughtful and inspiring words in "Civil Disobedience" are a manifesto for never taking things lying down.