4 Key Questions to Ask Before Reading Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” has continued to resonate with readers around the world since its publication in 1849. In the 20th century, notable activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. drew inspiration from Thoreau’s work for their own nonviolent resistance to injustice and oppression. Thoreau’s essay endures primarily due to the accessibility, timelessness, and universality of his themes. Whether reading for the classroom or personal enjoyment, consider these key questions before beginning Thoreau’s essay.

What Do I Know About Henry David Thoreau?

Many associate Henry David Thoreau with his two best-known works: “Civil Disobedience” and Walden. However, as an abolitionist, essayist, and naturalist, Thoreau led an active life—He gave lectures, wrote essays, and explored the wilderness of New England.

Thoreau actively participated in the transcendental movement, embracing self-reliance and individualism. He sought to implement these qualities into his own life, which inevitably led to his writing “Civil Disobedience.” The inspiration for the essay came after his arrest in July of 1846 for refusing to pay his poll tax for over six years. News of the arrest spread quickly, but Thoreau was only in jail for a night. Rather than feeling ashamed, Thoreau used the experience to write “Civil Disobedience.”

Thoreau’s convictions were important to him, but it’s necessary to consider his privilege, which often goes unacknowledged. (For instance, a friend bailed him out of jail, and the land on which he built his cabin at Walden Pond belonged to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.) He draws his ideas from his personal experience, a tenet of transcendentalism, but as broad as his ideas are, they are limited in scope. Thoreau presents them as universally applicable, but he fails to reflect on how society treats him differently than they would a woman or a person of color. Consider how and to what extent his themes change when taking such information into consideration.

What Do I Know About Transcendentalism?

It’s not necessary to have a thorough understanding of transcendentalism in order to comprehend Thoreau’s arguments in “Civil Disobedience,” but familiarity with the movement and its basic tenets will provide insightful context.

Transcendentalism was not systematic nor unified enough to be considered a philosophy, so it is best understood as a set of principles and attitudes. Generally, the transcendental movement embraced the following ideas:

  • Imagination and introspection can overcome the limits of circumstance, time, and place.
  • Intuition should be trusted above all else to know what is moral and what is true.
  • Humans are essentially good and divine, a belief that ran contrary to the view of Calvinism, a strict form of Christianity formerly prevalent in New England.
  • Contemplating the natural world, a reflection of divine truth and goodness, elevates the soul.
  • Wisdom and inspiration come from study and understanding, not imitation.

Thoreau’s work generally adheres to and expresses these principles, focusing on the importance of an individual’s pursuit of personal knowledge and experience in order to find truth. This means that Thoreau viewed institutions and their taxes as infringements on individualism, which do more harm than good.

What Do I Know About Paradoxes?

Thoreau and fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote with a mixture of rhetorical and literary devices to convey their ideas, often employing poetic and figurative language. One of their most frequently used devices is paradox. To parse Thoreau’s themes in “Civil Disobedience,” a general understanding of paradox as a literary device is important.

A paradox refers to a statement that is self-contradictory, sometimes to the point of absurdity, but reveals a truth. As an example, here is a paradox from Thoreau’s essay: “The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue to sustain it.” The contradiction here is that we assume virtue sustains goodness, not errors. So, the truth revealed is that the errors in society are sustained by otherwise virtuous people who are uninterested in addressing them.

Thoreau uses this device to a great extent in his essay to reveal truths and develop his larger themes. Look for moments when the language appears contradictory and consider whether or not a paradox is in play.

What Do I Know About Civil Disobedience?

Thoreau never uses the term “civil disobedience” in his essay, though the spirit of the text provides a general idea of what it means. As a result of the essay’s publication and the nonviolent-protest practices employed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the term has acquired a specific meaning: a refusal to obey a government’s laws or commands as part of an organized, nonviolent political protest.

For Thoreau, he considered refusing to pay taxes a form of nonviolent protest. While reading the essay, consider comparing today’s conceptions of civil disobedience in the context of civil rights to how Thoreau presents it in his own situation and philosophy. All conceptions of civil disobedience generally share the same spirit, but the nuances add to a deeper enjoyment of Thoreau’s essay.