Reading Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, it seems as though Thoreau has a great deal of contempt for what many of us today would consider staples of democracy. Compromise, voting, persuading the majority, all of these things are viewed as worse than useless by Thoreau. He holds that any person who would tacitly endorse an unjust law or an unjust regime, simply by not withholding material support for it, fails their conscience and is as guilty of the injustice such laws and regimes bring as any other. Simply being against something in word is not enough for Thoreau, one must also be opposed to something in deed. “There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.” For every one person who follows their conscience there are 999 who speak their conscience while betraying it, says Thoreau.
“All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expedience. Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it.”
This is pretty radical talk, as if all people were to act as Thoreau seems to want them to then democratic society as we know it might even collapse. Every time the majority chose some course of action that a minority did not agree with, the minority would then “clog” the country with “its whole weight.”
But this assumes that democracy means nothing more than voting, and I could see how what Thoreau advocates is a more full realization of democracy, casting “your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” Indeed, Thoreau isn’t saying that men should always strive to do what is best and right, but merely that they should avoid doing wrong even if the state compels them too.
“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”
According to Thoreau, this course of action is the most effective way to make society and the state more just and morally accountable. Attempting to persuade or reform “takes too much time” away from the “other affairs” of life, namely to live it. But by refusing to lend practical support to injustice, “if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.”
Although Thoreau mainly spoke in terms of environmentalism and abolition, the modern parallels to his line of thought that comes to my mind most readily would be the various tax-protestor movements on the right. Ideologies like the Sovereign Citizen movement seem to be taking Thoreau on his word, but are most commonly associated with reactionaries, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and militia movements. Though it might be unfair to hold Thoreau accountable for the actions of such people, I think it at least casts some doubt on his argument.
Is Thoreau’s argument regarding the duty of each individual to live according to his conscience practical? Is it moral? Is compromise overrated? Or is Thoreau wrong? Do we need to be willing to submit injustices we might disagree with for the greater good? Are the methods for reforming a system from within sufficient?