What do self-reliance and civil disobedience have in common?

Thoreau's philosophy of self-reliance and civil disobedience is a logical extension of Emerson's.

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Obviously this question is best answered by holding the works of Emerson and Thoreau up to comparison. It is well-known that Ralph Waldo Emerson disapproved of Thoreau's decision to go to jail as an act of civil disobedience. Indeed, he disagreed with the idea of civil disobedience itself. But there...

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Obviously this question is best answered by holding the works of Emerson and Thoreau up to comparison. It is well-known that Ralph Waldo Emerson disapproved of Thoreau's decision to go to jail as an act of civil disobedience. Indeed, he disagreed with the idea of civil disobedience itself. But there is no doubt that Emerson's concept of self-reliance was to a great extent taken to its logical end-point with Thoreau's concept of civil disobedience. Throughout "Self-Reliance," Emerson advocates non-conformity, self-discipline, and the kind of individualism embodied by the phrase "trust thyself." He claims, in general, that great people throughout history had transcended their society precisely because they followed the dictates of their own conscience. Thoreau agreed with all of that, but sought to understand how an individual could function in a civil society, particularly one that was democratic, when his conscience ran counter to the laws of that society. In other words, in a majoritarian democracy, what was one to do when the majority was wrong? Thoreau's answer was that the state had no authority over a man's soul, and that if a law ran contrary to the dictates of one's conscience, one was under no moral obligation to obey it. This was his rationale for refusing to pay a poll tax, and he served a very short jail term as a consequence. He urged his readers to consider their individual consciences in relation to the law:

[I]f it [the law] 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.

So in many ways, Thoreau is living the philosophy of self-reliance, in the sense that he does not look to the state (in America, the people) for guidance as to righteousness. What these two philosophies had in common, then, is that they encouraged people to look inward, to value their own consciences.

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Both are concepts based on essays written by two Transcendentalists in the 1840s—“Self-Reliance,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in 1841; and “Civil Disobedience,” then called “Resistance to Civil Government,” by Emerson’s main protégé, Henry David Thoreau, published in 1849. Both speak to the power of the individual and the importance of people to step up and to claim their individuality, their opinions, and their personalities. Conformity is wrong. Embrace your nonconformity, your individuality. But while Emerson speaks more generally about individual words and deeds, Thoreau addresses the specifics of how an individual can coexist with a government which he disagrees with. He uses his own example from an incident in July 1846, when he spent a night in jail because he had not paid the state poll tax. It should be noted that while we now associate Thoreau with any act of “civil disobedience,” the truth is that he never used this term in his essay or in any of his writings. The title of his essay was changed by a publisher or editor when it was re-printed after Thoreau’s death in 1862.

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