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Change The World, Not Yourself — Or How Hannah Arendt Called Out Henry David Thoreau

August 25, 2018 in Blogs

By Katie Fitzpatrick, Aeon

The political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote an essay on ‘Civil Disobedience’, published in The New Yorker magazine in September 1970. Thoreau, she argued, was no civil disobedient.


It is not often that a neighbourhood squabble is remembered as a world-historical event. In the summer of 1846, Henry David Thoreau spent a single night in jail in Concord, Massachusetts after refusing to submit his poll tax to the local constable. This minor act of defiance would later be immortalised in Thoreau’s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ (1849). There, he explains that he had been unwilling to provide material support to a federal government that perpetuated mass injustice – in particular, slavery and the Mexican-American war. While the essay went largely unread in his own lifetime, Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience would later inspire many of the world’s greatest political thinkers, from Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi to Martin Luther King.

Yet his theory of dissent would have its dissenters, too. The political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote an essay on ‘Civil Disobedience’, published in The New Yorker magazine in September 1970. Thoreau, she argued, was no civil disobedient. In fact, she insisted that his whole moral philosophy was anathema to the collective spirit that ought to guide acts of public refusal. How could the great luminary of civil disobedience be charged with misunderstanding it so profoundly?

Thoreau’s essay offers a forceful critique of state authority and an uncompromising defence of the individual conscience. In Walden (1854), he argued that each man should follow his own individual ‘genius’ rather than social convention, and in ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ he insists that we should follow our own moral convictions rather than the laws of the land. The citizen, he suggests, must never ‘for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation’. For Thoreau, this prescription holds even when the laws are produced through democratic elections and referenda. Indeed, for him, democratic participation only degrades our moral character. When we cast a ballot, he explains, we vote for a principle that we believe is right, but at …read more

Source: ALTERNET

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