Over the years, I have become accustomed to being unable to find books in my local Barnes and Noble. While I wander aimlessly, frustrated at the size of the store and the number of shelves given to self-improvement books over classic works, I do my best to remain upbeat, telling myself that I will eventually find that for which I am looking. From time to time, I will need to order a book at the information desk, a service in which Barnes and Noble excels.
Recently, however, I found myself standing in disbelief in my local bookstore. After half an hour of wandering, convinced by age and genetic predisposition that I do not require directions, I stopped at the information desk and asked a simple question, “Do you have a copy of Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau? I can’t seem to find it.” I received a simple, “Oh, sure. We keep it over here.”
It was then that I was led to the fiction section of the store, an area that I personally frequent, but not one in which I was expecting to spend any of my time that day. I breathed a sigh of relief when we could not find it and we walked over to the US History section, which I had already checked several times. We came up empty once more. After checking on the computer, we went back to the fiction section and found it sitting on a different shelf.
The employee smiled and gave a happy, “Ah, there you are, sir!” I nodded and gave a meek, “Thank you,” while I stared at several copies of one of the greatest works of political and moral philosophy, relegated to the shelves that contained pages of stories that never took place. I took the book and quickly walked to the counter to pay and made a hasty exit, still unsure of what I had just witnessed.
What Happened to Civil Disobedience?
When writing Civil Disobedience, Thoreau began by acknowledging his agreement with the phrase, “That government is best which governs least.” He continued:
…and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, ― ”That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
Thoreau does not begin with specific injustices or drawing attention to the ills of society but points immediately to the source of injustices: government. Throughout his essay, Thoreau questions the ability of government to govern justly, regardless of good intentions, and thus whether government should even be allowed to exist, or should men simply govern themselves.
In this vein, Thoreau journeyed through man’s relationship with government, suggesting that it was better to live apart from it or, at a minimum, to not sacrifice one’s conscience in service to the state. He cited the Mexican-American War that was ongoing as he wrote this essay, calling it, “the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.”
Such opposition to any such efforts by the government today would likely result in a public and political response on par with the one Justin Amash recently received.
Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi
Thoreau’s measured and tempered distaste of government, recognizing that the only thing fouler in this world than evil men are evil men whose actions and industry enjoy the protection of the state. His reflection on the relationship between the individual and the government led him to a simple conclusion, “If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” The nature of the state is one of force and so we must discern between just and unjust actions taken by the government and we must be willing to reject that which is unjust, even at risk to ourselves.
This sentiment was echoed decades later by Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt. And a citizen who barters with such a state shares in its corruption and lawlessness.” Gandhi recognized the evil within the British government and inspired a nation to refuse to participate in its oppression. Even at great risk to the Indian people, the need to separate from the unjust actions of a government was ultimately necessary. No matter what the law says, a state which violates natural law is unconscionable among just men. “An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so,” said Gandhi.
Fast forward only a few decades further and similar sentiments were expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose name is synonymous with civil disobedience:
An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
Since then, Dr. King’s work has become the standard for opposing a state that attempts to circumvent, or even eliminate, natural rights and civil liberties.
America is a Nation of Dissidents
I once wrote that America is a nation of dissidents. We formally rejected the rule of a tyrannical monarch, declared ourselves an independent nation, and then fought to secure such independence. Even a quick glance at the Bill of Rights tells us that our natural right to oppose an unjust state was solidified by our Founders as immutable. A spirit that is captured greatly by Thoreau.
Perhaps my speechlessness at the sight of a work such as Civil Disobedience being shelved under fiction was an overreaction. Perhaps it was an oversight by the bookstore that will be corrected in time. Perhaps it was a non-issue. I am left with no doubt, however, that it is indicative of a country that has long since lost its willingness to oppose its government. Rather than civil disobedience, we have tossed civility to the side in favor of personal and political opposition, weakening our ability to truly be the source from which government derives its power.
I can only hope that Barnes and Noble will pull Civil Disobedience from its fiction section and move it to the front of their stores. Thoreau’s work should be read aloud from the rooftops in every community across the globe, rather than buried among works of fiction. If we, as a nation of dissidents, truly wish to effect positive change in our lives and communities, we must step back and realize that we cannot achieve this by fighting each other. We must instead concentrate our energy in opposition towards an unjust state. Question authority and never allow yourself to be an agent of injustice or oppression.