Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

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What are some elements of transcendentalism in "Civil Disobedience"?

An element of transcendentalism in “Civil Disobedience” can be observed in Thoreau’s emphasis on people following their own conscience. Thoreau believes that one must strive to make the ideal real. In practical terms, this means to live one's life according to the dictates of one’s notions of right and wrong. On some occasions, this can lead to civil disobedience, as when the clash between the government’s will and the individual’s will becomes impossible to reconcile.

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In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau draws upon his transcendentalist philosophy in order to justify non-violent resistance to the government. As a transcendentalist, Thoreau believes that one must always strive to live in accordance with one’s conscience, to make the ideal real. In doing so, individuals will become divine, transcending the common social world and living at one with nature.

At some point, the realization of the transcendentalist ideal will lead to a clash between the will of the government and the will of the individual. The government, as is its wont, will pursue policies that the enlightened individual will find morally repugnant.

One such example given by Thoreau is the Mexican War, which he regards as an unjust act of plunder and conquest carried out by the American government for the purpose of increasing slave-holding territories. As a staunch opponent of slavery, Thoreau strongly opposes this war and therefore refuses to pay taxes, as these can be used to support what he regards as unconscionable military action.

As a transcendentalist, Thoreau believes that people are essentially good but can do evil things if they depart from the path of nature, the rational path to follow in life. The Mexican War, for Thoreau, is a classic example of what happens when man departs from the rational path of nature. In such a situation, it is up to individuals like himself to stand up to government by engaging in acts of civil disobedience, such as not paying taxes, in the hope that others will follow his or her example and by doing so change the government’s ruinous policies.

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