Peaceful DemonstrationsHow would Emerson and Thoreau respond to current demonstrations? Would they expect each person who participate to be responsible for for thoses that commit violence or...

Peaceful Demonstrations

How would Emerson and Thoreau respond to current demonstrations? Would they expect each person who participate to be responsible for for thoses that commit violence or destroy property?

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Crowd actions were a common occurrence in Thoreau and Emerson's day. Boston experienced a great deal of labor strife from the 1830s-1850s, and the anti-abolition crowds that attacked William Lloyd Garrison are very famous. And thinking people were concerned by these events. I think they would probably approve of some of the message that is coming from the OWS folks, who ultimately are unhappy with many of the same forces they were unhappy with. In reality, however, neither Thoreau nor Emerson were comfortable with popular democracy. As Thoreau said in Civil Disobedience, "there is but little virtue in the actions of the masses of men." Thinking men of their time and place were concerned over "mob rule" and the "tyranny of the majority." Protest for them was an individual act of conscience to be undertaken by educated men.   Of the two, I think Thoreau would have been more likely to approve of the protests, but looking at the two figures in their historical context shows, in my opinion, that neither approved of crowd action. That doesn't mean that it's wrong, just that nineteenth-century philosophers probably wouldn't have approved of it.

vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is an interesting question: should the peaceful majority be held responsible for the acts of a violent minority who are part of their larger movement?  I am guessing that Thoreau and Emerson would say that, at first, each person is responsible for his or her own acts. But, after a point, if violence begins to become more frequent and less random, then people who stand by silently while it occurs have in a sense sanctioned it and thus bear some responsibility for it.  I don't know the degree to which this has happened yet in the OWS protests.  I think I read yesterday that some protestors shouted "shame! shame! shame!" when one of their comrades used violence, but I have no idea how typical that kind of reaction has been.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Where reality meets vision is the sticking point on any vision or plan. With this said, Emerson and Thoreau probably could not have conceived of the extent to which their principles might be taken. I'd venture to speculate that they might perceive the peaceful and the violent arms of any modern movement as two different protests and perhaps go so far as to insist the arms disassociate from the other so as not to (1) pollute the power of the peaceful movement and so as not to (2) condone the violent movement.

wannam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have to agree with post 7.  I don't know that Thoreau or Emerson would have taken part in the protests of today.  They might have understood some of the message OWS is trying to send, but I doubt they would have approved of many of the protests.  Of course, it is difficult to take a 19th century philosopher out of context.  Surely Thoreau and Emerson would have approved of using the written word to educated and promote change in the world.  I'm not sure they would have approved of the mass demonstrations.

stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with above posts. I suspect Emerson and Thoreau would have been in the midst of the peaceful segments of the protesting crowds, possibly feeling frustrated that those around them were not better able to formulate and present a coherent explanation of exactly what they were protesting. I think either of them would have been able to present a more articulate explanation of the issues than seems to be the case with too many OWS participants.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Very difficult to say, actually.  I think Thoreau would have been proud that the idea he espoused in Civil Disobedience had been so thoroughly and widely adopted as a protest tactic.  I also think he would have been stunned at the size and urban nature of America in the modern day, so much so that he might argue his ideas couldn't function in an America he could never have envisioned.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that they would approve of the basic ideals that OWS is protesting for.  However, I do not think that they would approve of the tactics that some in the movement are using.  They would not approve of the use of violence against police or the destruction of property.  However, I don't think they would hold all protestors liable for the actions of a few.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I personally don't think that Emerson and Thoreau would have held the peaceful majority accountable for the failings of a violent minority. Whilst they would have supported the right of humans to protest, they would definitely have frowned upon the violence used by a very few protestors.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Given that the Transcendentalists believed, and yearned for, the goodness of man, I would tend to agree with pohnpei. Both Emerson and Thoreau would agree with ideologies which supported the success of man, I do not believe that they would accept (or agree with) any violent acts.