What influences of Emerson can you find in Thoreau's resistance to civil government?

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chsmith1957 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Compare Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (now known as “Civil Disobedience”) with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” While Emerson speaks in more general terms about the unique value of the words and deeds of the individual, Thoreau applies the concept to the individual’s rights and responsibilities where government is concerned. He especially focuses on the approaches to take when one disagrees with a law designed and assumed to be followed by the majority of the population.

In “Self-Reliance,” we find,

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.

Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.

His concluding statement:

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

Emerson even uses prison and jail references to describe conformity:

The man is as it were clapped into jail by his consciousness.

Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression.

Ironically, Emerson equates following the status quo by being in a sort of self-made prison. Thoreau, on the other hand, is put into jail for one night because he breaks away from conformity, because he stands up for his right to refuse to pay the annual state poll tax.

Look through “Civil Disobedience” and you will find these statements, complementing those quoted from Emerson above:

I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward.

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

A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.

There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

The bottom line is that Emerson spoke and wrote about self-reliance and nonconformity. Thoreau spoke and wrote on the same subjects and also proved to be a living example of them.

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favoritethings eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Emerson wrote,

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. . . . Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

The idea that one must rely on oneself and that one must be guided to live by one's own principles underwrites Thoreau's resistance to government. Many would suggest that a person should live according to the law, that the social order is maintained by our laws, and that laws are the ultimate rules on which we should rely. However, Thoreau claims that the only way to truly live an ethical life is to do whatever is most just whether it is legal or not. For example, slavery was legal, but it was not just. Likewise, Thoreau believed that the US government's war with Mexico was unjust. Therefore, Thoreau refused to pay his taxes (in part) because he knew that some of his tax dollars would go to support these unjust practices. He broke the law and actually spent a night in jail as a result. He said the following:

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

He acted illegally but ethically—he was a nonconformist looking to preserve the integrity of his own mind (to paraphrase Emerson).

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One of Emerson's fundamental claims is the idea that the individual must listen to their own voice and respond to it.  Silencing it in the name of the conformist social order is something that Emerson rejects.  It is in hearing the individual voice, causing the individual to do what resides in their sense of self, that Emerson validates and extols the individual.  In this, Thoreau takes Emerson's primacy on the individual to a logical and political extension in "Civil Disobedience."  Thoreau argues that the political consequences of the Emersonian philosophy is to reject a political demand when one knows it is wrong. For Thoreau, his own protest against slavery drove him to stand his position and even go to prison instead of complying with a law that he felt was wrong.  The Emersonian notion of the self is validated in this example.  Throughout the essay, there is a clear appeal to Emerson's idea that if the individual knows and can clearly identify where there is a disconnect between their own sense of self and the laws or practices in which an individual lives, they must heed their subjectivity.  The Emerson idea of activating this as opposed to repressing it becomes the basis of Thoreau's writing.

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