‘Civil Disobedience’ and the Influence of Transcendentalism

Henry David Thoreau (1815-62) was an American writer and philosopher with a strong belief in independence and self-reliance. His opposition to the interference of government with the life of the individual has led to suggestions that he was a proto-anarchist, though in truth Thoreau favoured a reduction in government rather than its absence altogether. His stance on these issues was laid out in his 1849 essay ‘Civil Disobedience’, in which he called for people to place more importance on following their own conscience than on the dictates of governments. Thoreau’s philosophy was greatly influenced by the movement of transcendentalism, which he first encountered through the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Transcendentalism believes that nature and people are inherently positive, and that people must follow their own understanding of what is right or wrong.

Social constructs such as government or slavery interfere with this natural understanding and should therefore be disregarded. The individual owed it to themselves to oppose any such construct. The movement drew considerable inspiration from Indian religions and in his book Walden Thoreau wrote about the effect regularly reading the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, had upon him.For Thoreau, the concept of transcendentalism was not merely a philosophical one; he was prepared to support his beliefs by carrying out acts of civil disobedience, such as refusing to pay taxes as a form of dissent regarding the Mexican War (1846-1848). Thoreau opposed slavery and social injustice; he argued against the Mexican War – fought over the state of Texas – because many who supported it were southerners hoping to gain greater territory for the slave-owning southern states. For him the war was unjust and should therefore be actively opposed.

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Thoreau’s political writings had little impact during his own lifetime, with contemporary readers taking more interest in his work on nature. However, ‘Civil Disobedience’ has proved highly influential on many engaged in civil rights and other such movements long after his death. As is often the case for great thinkers, his peers may have cared little for his work, but his influence would be felt many years after his death. Such great men as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King would express how greatly they had been impressed by his work – some hundred years after his death.

Transcendentalism did not endure beyond Thoreau’s own lifetime, but while the movement existed it counted well-known writers among its ranks, including Louisa May Alcott, Emerson, and the poet Walt Whitman. In fact, Emerson was a friend and mentor of Thoreau, and he and his work would have a great influence on the other writer. Emerson’s comments on religion caused outrage in some circles, although to contemporary eyes it is unsurprising that the movement set little store by the emphasis of religion on obedience and faith in a higher power. This was completely at odds with the transcendentalist belief in nature and the need of the individual to follow their own path. However, humanity tends to follow the status quo, and religion continues to possess a dominant influence on the United States, even in these supposedly more enlightened times.

In many ways, he and the transcendentalist movement were ahead of their time. We are unlikely to see the end of our current form of government, yet elements of Thoreau’s assertion of self-sufficiency still exist, although not to the extent that he spoke of. We believe that people should provide for themselves, though we do not support the complete overthrow of our political system. Perhaps even now we are not ready for the personal responsibility that following Thoreau’s advocacy of ‘Civil Disobedience’ entails.