Extraordinary People and Civil Disobedience: Henry David Thoreau

‘Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime’, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. 1808.

Speaking in regard to the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol, Labour politician David Lammy recently said, in an interview with GMB, that, “those young people who brought that statue down knew they would be facing the law, but that’s the price they were prepared to pay.” Adding that such forms of ‘illegal’ protest come from an ideology that necessitates, “being prepared to break the law because they [protestors] believe that the issue of justice that they wanted to shine a light on was a bigger project.” Political activism since the nineteenth century has often been concerned with the extent to which law-breaking and criminality should be employed to bring about change. The question surmounts to, In order to bring about change in society — political change in the form of new laws, justice reforms — is it necessary to challenge and break pre-existing laws? Is it possible to change the law without first breaking the law? Or can changes in the law be brought about by someone acting within the law?

Lammy highlights the fact that historical evidence suggests ‘criminal acts’ are indeed required to emphasise injustices in the law, and society at large. Henry David Thoreau, writing during the mid-nineteenth century, proclaims:

The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.

Resistance to Civil Government, 1849.

For Thoreau, ‘conscience’ comes above ‘law’ — ‘we should be men first, and subjects afterward.’ This gendered language fails to convince us completely of Thoreau’s dedication to the idea of individual accountability (as if the conscience of men is to be trusted, but not the conscience of women) but his argument, once made wholly inclusive, warrants consideration. There are, of course, issues with it. Humans are, unfortunately, a divided species and moral compasses throughout history have often proved problematic. There are frequently varying notions of right and wrong from person to person, and many would argue that the justice system effectively combats this by collating majority definitions and judging behaviour accordingly; the law punishes those who believe murder is right, and act on this belief, because the majority of people believe that murder is wrong.

If that man who believes murder is ‘right’ were living in a society without a pervasive, all-encompassing law, what would happen? If each man abided by his own conscience and was bound to no over-arching set of rules, how would a belief in the ‘rightness’ of murder manifest? It is difficult to imagine what life would be like in this kind of lawless, some might say ‘anarchic’, state. If our murderer killed someone, there would be no systematic chain-of-events that would lead to his punishment. Perhaps someone who believes the murder was wrong, and believes capital punishment is right, would enact punishment and murder the murderer. However, it is also possible that if society were to undergo such a massive transformation, ‘crimes’ — such as we imagine them — might cease to exist completely. I couldn’t possibly theorise with any certainty how this kind of society might operate, but, believing in the innate goodness of humanity, it is certainly possible that a more just, equal, and evenly distributed world would eventually take shape. The need to coexist peacefully without the presence of any superior body favouring one person over another, could rid the world of systemic injustices and force each person to become accountable for themselves.

I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

Thoreau identifies the fact that a movement from the kind of justice system in place now to complete personal accountability cannot come into effect overnight. This is why it is so difficult to conceptualise a society governed only by the conscience of the individual. If we are to be governed on a mass scale and comply completely with the justice system — that includes being complicit in its faults — ‘Why has every man a conscience, then?’ For Thoreau, the answer to this question is that we must use our conscience to decide what is truly right, and if this is contrary to common law, we have a duty to side with our conscience. Thus, breaking unjust laws — laws contrary to our own moral compass — is, effectively, the ‘right’ thing to do. This makes absolute sense when we consider historical examples. Rosa Parks broke the law by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man because her conscience told her that he had no more right to the seat than she did. Segregation and the explicit superiority of white people in the eyes of the law seem to us now ridiculously unjust concepts, disgusting examples of blatant racism. But at the time, the majority of people simply conceded that that was the way things were.

Injustice is most obvious to those who are treated unfairly. If Rosa Parks had simply campaigned, spoke to people, asked them ‘why should I sacrifice my seat on the bus to a white man?‘, she would have gotten nowhere. Only by staying seated, challenging the man ‘why should I move for you?‘, was she able to portray to bystanders how nonsensical such unjust laws were. Because to the majority, it was a mere seat on a bus. But subsumed within that seat, within that law, is a ruling that your existence is inferior to somebody else’s solely because of the colour of your skin; subsumed within that ruling is a biting, insistent degradation that you do not deserve such luxury as that bus-seat. How could the white person possibly comprehend how utterly depressing, how utterly humiliating it must be to — in public — be forced to get up and move because your comfort is deemed less important, because you, it has been decreed, deserve discomfort? Only by a black person embracing this injustice and saying No, only by embodying such hypocrisy and giving it vitality, can the white person come close to understanding.

Rosa Parks was arrested and punished for breaking an unjust law. But what if it is not the law, but the enactment of it, that is unjust? How much does this change things? Well, in effect, not much. Injustice is most obvious to those who are treated unfairly. Speaking of the government, Thoreau asks:

Why is [the government] not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?

Whether injustices are written into law, woven into our institutions, education, legal practices, etc. etc. — however injustices manifest is irrelevant. Our response must be the same. Listening to the voices of the ‘wise minority’ who know injustice better than any of us because they are the ones forced to face it, and using symbolic acts of illegality, which take immense bravery and self-sacrifice to carry out, to make ourselves aware of the problem, to inform ourselves of its root, its practice, and its solution — these are the duties we all must bear. We must be alert to point out the faults in our society and in our government, and enable those who refuse to acknowledge such injustices to hear themselves the voices of the oppressed, to see and understand.

The toppling of the Colston statue follows years (at least since the 1990s) of calls to have it removed. Though a criminal act, protestors who pulled it down and tossed it in Bristol harbour have shed light on the true nature of Colston’s life and wealth, as well as igniting a newfound sensibility in regard to which historical figures we celebrate and idolise in the form of monuments and statues. This is helping us to become aware of the unjust past. Though incredibly painful to watch, the videos of George Floyd which have swept across the internet have sparked a new desire amongst the majority to listen to the voices of those who face injustice — in all forms, from conscious or unconscious discrimination at work, a lack of representation in the media and history syllabuses alike, to the blatant racism of the legal system. This is helping us to become aware of the unjust present. The future lies in wait, and there are many steps to take before it will become truly and completely just. We need to learn from the past, listen to those who face injustices in the present, and if, as Thoreau said, each person lets known what kind of government would command their respect, we will be edging towards a more just society and, eventually, one in which each person’s conscience is the only governing body we need.

A final word on the role of criminality in instigating change. Thoreau advocates the use of criminal acts, the practice of disobeying the law, if by not doing anything and abiding by the law, you are complicit in perpetuating an injustice.

If the injustice is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.

What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

This clearly does not promote looting or random acts of vandalism. If you don’t loot and don’t vandalise private property or innocent, bystanding shops, you are not complicit in any injustice. Therefore, criminal acts of this nature are unnecessary and indefensible. However, warranted cases of ‘criminal’ behaviour and unlawfulness, exemplified by Rosa Parks and those who tore down the Colston statue, serve that ‘bigger project’ Lammy referred to. They highlight specific societal hypocrisies or injustices, and take on a symbolic form that triggers a sensibility in the public to these issues. They force us to engage with difficult questions, to interrogate our cultural heritage and listen to those who are mistreated, and in doing-so, help to bring about progress in society at large. This is the area in which unlawfulness or criminality can be used for a greater good.


Next week, in a related blogpost, I will discuss a specific episode from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov lays out his philosophy of ‘extraordinary people’ and their right to transgress laws for the betterment society.

4 thoughts on “Extraordinary People and Civil Disobedience: Henry David Thoreau”

  1. This is amazing, I got a lot of insights from it, I had no idea that Thoreau was an advocate of social justice. I love the idea of following one’s own moral compass and standing up for against what is wrong in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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