Annotated Bibliography on Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” – English Literature Essay

The idea that I am pursuing in this annotated bibliography is whether or not the ideas suggested by Henry David Thoreau in his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” are actually anarchy. To do this, I first

found a definition of anarchy in Webster’s Dictionary. It defines anarchy as a lack of government in a state; lawlessness; confusion.

Upon beginning research, I found that Thoreau’s essay was also published under the title “Civil Disobedience” and that most critics call it that.

Eulau, Heinz “Wayside Challenger: Some Remarks on the Politics of Henry David Thoreau.” Thoreau: A Collection of Critical Essays. (1959): 117-130

Heinz Eulau writes that Thoreau “refused to vote because he considered the democratic ballet an ineffective political instrument” (119). Eulau says that Thoreau called for a better government at once, not for government to end at once. Eulau also says that “Such a government would anticipate and provide for reform, cherish its “wise minority” and encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults.” Thoreau is demanding a government that protects and serves its people, not itself. He probably saw the government not wanting to abolish slavery as one of the many ways that government works for government and not for the people it governs, because slavery kept a lot of money in the right places for the government. Eulau also says that Thoreau’s politics could not be brought into literal use because they were ambiguous. He says that Thoreau could not recognize why his ideas could not work “because he fell back, again and again, on the principle of individual conscience as the sole valid guide in the political action” (120). This, according to Eulau, is in conflict with the democratic principle of majority rule. I think that if the people were of the high conscience Thoreau assumed, then their majority would be of the same high conscience and thus they would make moral and just decisions for everyone. It’s too bad that the level of conscience Thoreau believed in does not exist for the majority of people today.

Edel, Leon. Henry David Thoreau. (1970): 47p

Leon Edel says that the essay “Civil Disobedience” is written to set up Thoreau’s argument for “men to offer noncompliance when their conscience dictates it” (38). He says that this idea in practice “has proved to be a passive way of making revolution” (38). Edel is focusing on Thoreau’s essay as a way of making changes, rather than a call for government to end. He argues that “passive resistance” does not work in all situations, saying that Nazis in tanks would surely run over people sitting in the road to protest them. He also says, “Thoreau’s civil disobedience presupposes a high state of conscience” (38). While I don’t share the same faith in man that Thoreau did, I do believe that if the high state of conscience he believed in could be achieved that his ideas would work. Edel also says, “Whether the personal anarchism Thoreau preached is possible in every age remains to be seen” (39). I think that he is saying that by living the way he did, Thoreau achieved his own personal anarchy, while still being under the United States government. To use anarchy in this way would imply that it means freedom on an individual level, which is in some ways obtainable today, but everyone still must abide by laws.

Glick, Wendell. “Civil Disobedience’: Thoreau’s Attack upon Relativism.” Western Humanities Review, Vol. VII No. 1 (1952): 35-42.

Wendell Glick writes that Thoreau is calling only for a government that governs not at all when men are prepared for it. Glick says that Thoreau is addressing those no-government men the anarchists and extremists. According to Glick, Thoreau believed that these men fail to take into consideration the imperfection of the human species. So if Thoreau is calling for anarchy, he is not calling for anarchy as we think of it today. His anarchy is more like a utopian society, which can only exist when men become enlightened enough to govern themselves. Glick says that Thoreau considered governments only temporary arrangements whose purpose are to keep order until “the development of the individual should make them no longer necessary” (38). Glick adds “Thoreau did not object to government per se” (38). According to Glick, Thoreau was so angry at the tendency of government to “substitute the principal of social utility for the principle of absolute right” (38). I agree with Glick’s arguments that Thoreau did not totally write off government all together. Thoreau realized that the situation he wanted was not possible at his time, but he was very optimistic about the possibility of it occurring in the future.

Kazin, Alfrid. Henry David Thoreau: Studies and Commentaries. Fairleigh Dickinson
University Press. (1972): 34-52.

Alfrid Kazin says that Thoreau knew no Negroes and had never been oppressed; yet he claimed strong opposition to slavery. Kazin uses this to argue that Thoreau was an idealist whose ideas existed only in principle and not reality. He also says that Thoreau “proposed to teach others to be as free of society as himself” (44). Being free of society is hardly a synonym for anarchy. Kazin states that Thoreau “affirms the absolute right of the individual to obey his own conscience in defiance of an unknown law” (44). Disobeying a law is hardly anarchy, but could an argument not be made that obeying an unjust law is closer to anarchy? Democracy is based on government by the people, and not governing oneself by obeying an unjust law would then fit the definition of lawlessness (for oneself) in anarchy. Kazin quotes Thoreau as saying, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison” (44). Thoreau is obviously making a reference to himself here, but I think that he cannot expect a perfect society in any shape or form, which is implied when he says that no one should be unjustly imprisoned. If imprisonment is to be used as punishment at all, human error will ensure that there will always be wrongfully imprisoned persons.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. Henry David Thoreau. (1948): 298p

Joseph Krutch writes that Thoreau “calls upon all honest men to do what he has done and to refuse active or even symbolical support to the state which countenances the nefarious institution of slavery” (134). Krutch also says that Thoreau is angry with those that feel they have done their part by just voting for the right person. I think Thoreau felt that no one was capable of leading everyone in the right way all the time and so all authority should be challenged. Krutch says that “Thoreau was not unaware of the fact that he assumed the existence of these conditions, and it certainly did not seem to him, as it seemed to certain of his critics, that the assumptions invalidated the argument” (136). Here he is referring to Thoreau’s assumption that man is in a high enough state of conscience to govern himself. This would suggest that Thoreau knew his ideas could not work in his time, and maybe not at any time. However, he still wanted to express what might be the best way to do things under ideal conditions, in hopes that they might drive man farther towards them. This I agree with, as I think Thoreau knew the limitations of man then and was writing idealistically about a better way to live.

Madison, Charles A. “Henry David Thoreau: Transcendental Individualist.” Ethics, Vol. IV No. 2 (1944): 110-123.

Charles Madison says that Thoreau “gravitated toward the principles of philosophical anarchism” (114). This would suggest that Thoreau wasn’t demanding exactly what he wrote about, but instead trying to get people to think and to resist that which they feel is wrong. He says that Thoreau’s reasoning is that the individual and not the state is the best judge of right and wrong. I think Thoreau assumes that all people can differentiate between right and wrong. I slightly disagree with him here because some people cannot see right and wrong. That being said, Thoreau also seems to think that all people will use their judgement of right and wrong to make good moral decisions. This does not work at all in today’s society, as many people can make the distinction but won’t follow through with the right action. I don’t see how society could have been that much different in Thoreau’s day. Madison says that Thoreau knew that men needed government as long as greed and passion overtook them. This would again reiterate the idea of “philosophical anarchism,” which may be of better use as a teacher than it would be in practice.

Nelson, William Stuart. “Thoreau and American Non-Violent Resistance.” Thoreau in Our Season. (1967): 14-18.

William Nelson writes “It is yet to dawn fully upon the participants in sit-ins, freedom rides and other recent forms of non-violent resistance in the United States how deeply indebted they are to Henry David Thoreau” (14). He says that Thoreau “conceded that government is a present necessity but held that governments by their very nature are prone to err” (14). Thoreau would then not be calling for anarchy, but for a check to the errors of government by the people of a nation. Nelson says that what Thoreau really wants is “the assertion of the right of conscience in the presence of the rule of law” (15). I agree with this, as I think Thoreau was fine with law as long as it was just and moral. If the law is not just and moral, then man should resist until it is changed. Nelson says, “Civil resistance is not necessarily invoked against every law which is regarded as bad” (15). This reiterates that Thoreau did not mind all laws, just those that his conscience deemed unjust.

Nichols, Charles H. “Thoreau on the Citizen and His Government.” PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, Vol. XIII No. 1 (1952): 19-24.

Charles Nichols writes that Thoreau refused the government at his time any cooperation, while he stated his allegiance to a higher law. He says that the higher law Thoreau was looking for can be found in nature. Looking for any law at all would suggest that anarchy is not what Thoreau wanted. Anarchy by definition is the absence of laws. Thoreau did say, however, “he who lives by the highest law is in one sense lawless.” Thoreau meant that by living under the law of nature, a person is free. Nichols says “to vote thus for a man or measure with no consideration of what is morally right is to participate in a series of crimes against humanity (20). I think that voting for politicians or laws without morally judging them would bring about a state far worse than anarchy. Nichols says that the individuals Thoreau speaks of, the ones, who could and should govern themselves, would surely support a government that sought to establish and maintain justice. This would suggest that Thoreau just wants a better government, not anarchy.

Saalbach, Robert Palmer. “Thoreau and Civil Disobedience.” Ball State University
Forum Vol. XIII No. 4 (1972): 18-24.

Robert Saalbach gives a definition of society, which to him is “a system of mutually accepted rules of conduct limiting the behavior of individuals” (19). He argues that without these rules there is not a society, but a collection of individuals that do not know how to act in reference to others. He also says that society is a game and cannot be played without rules. I think that rules are needed for society today, only because there are those that cannot and will not think for themselves, as well as those that are purely evil. Saalbach says, “Thoreau assumes that the law always follows expediency while conscience always follows the right” (20). I agree that Thoreau assumed that every person’s conscience always follows the right, but I think he realized that people don’t always follow their conscience. He felt that is what every person should strive for, realizing that some people do not follow a strict morality. Saalbach also argues that law and right cannot be distinguished from each other. I do not agree with this, as law can be something just to further the wants of those in power, which is not necessarily right.

Vivas, Eliso. “Thoreau: The Paradox of Youth.” The New Student Vol. 7 No. 23 (1928): 5-8

Eliso Vivas says of Thoreau “He was an anarchist because he saw the essential uselessness of government” (5). I don’t think seeing government as useless necessarily labels a person an anarchist. Vivas says that Thoreau suggests that men only keep government around because they are afraid to do without its protection. Vivas says that Thoreau never felt a need for government because he was willing to share anything he owned with anyone. A society without government, but with people sharing everything they own does not sound like anarchy to me, although by definition it would be. Vivas uses the term “self-sufficient” to describe Thoreau and his ideas for a non-government. A society of self-sufficient individuals doesn’t sound like anarchy to me either. However, Thoreau was the exception and not the rule. Most people in my opinion could not deal with that kind of society.

All of this information points to one thing and that is that Thoreau contradicts himself in his essay “Civil Disobedience.” If he really wants no government at all, then he is calling for anarchy, but if he is only calling for this when man has a high enough conscience level, then it would not be the anarchy that I have defined. I think his main intention was to have people question the government, not to just take whatever it gives them. By saying that no government would be best, he drew attention to his essay because people are drawn to extremes. By just looking at it on the surface, I might call it anarchy, but I think Thoreau was calling for a kind of society that we don’t even have a word for, because we can’t see how it could exist.