Friday, February 8, 2013

Reading Thoreau: Democracy and Self-Fashioning

I want to begin thinking about the insights Henry David Thoreau provided in “Civil Disobedience” and what his thoughts provide in thinking through democracy. Democracy is, of course, a contested concept that has had much written about it since the ancient Greeks. Democracy can be conceived of as a form of  government that a nation-state develops through the creation of institutions, laws, rights - all often explicated in a constitution. For instance, the American Constitution, in light of its recent independence, sets forth the system of governance that will govern this new nation. The development of the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial) and the different powers each branch hold are written in ink and continue, for better or worse, to guide the experiment in democracy. For engagements with the constitution see Seidman’s (2013) On Constitutional Disobedience and Robert Dahl’s How Democratic is the American Constitution (2003). However, I am not interested in the constitution and its framing of “democracy” as a form of government (let’s call it a legal framing) and more interested in Thoreau’s framing of democracy as a citizen of a government, governed by the constitution (let’s call it a citizen framing).

In Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” he begins by accepting the motto “that government is best which governs least”. This is not a call for anarchy and the dissolution of the government, but a challenge to remember, it would seem, “that the government itself, which is only the mode by which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it”. The government, as was done in Thoreau’s time and continues to be done in contemporary times, can be used as a “tool” for a few (e.g., elected officials) to do things that “the people would not have consented to”. What we have with Thoreau, to be perhaps cliche, is a call to arms for citizens to recognize that the government is not responsible for doing things, but it is “the character inherent in the American people” that “has done all that has been accomplished” even as the “government sometimes got in its [the people’s] way”. This is not, I would argue, an attempt to do away with the government and the institutions it has built - some of which Thoreau recognizes as important and useful in his own daily life. Rather, it is an argument to recognize democracy as an on-going process of, not only consensus but also dissensus.

Now, for those who are skeptical of “call to arms” or a theory of civil disobedience, Thoreau does offer a rather “practical” approach:

But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once, a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
The citizen cannot simply accept the government in existence, but must develop an understanding of government, the expectations and responsibilities of that government, and “make known” such ideas so that such ideas can be debated and discussed within the public forum. This entails a challenge to the idea of the majority as he writes “but a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it” but must be ruled in “conscience”.

What is this conscience that he speaks of though? I would argue it is a challenge to develop autonomous citizens who “think for themselves” and do not have an “undue respect of the law” since that has led all kinds of citizens to do things “against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences”. Such a call for “thinking” is challenging of course as it opens us up to quite diverse and divergent possibilities, but as Morris Kaplan (1997) notes in Sexual Justice “Thoreau situates the struggle for justice within the individual’s negotiation of her own conflicting desires” (177). There is no clear-cut answer, there are conflicting desires and demands, but citizens must work through those, rather than simply be taken by the government’s thoughts on such matters. And, in neoliberal times, of which we already see in Thoreau’s day-and-age, this requires a trenchant challenge to the economic arguments, in favor of humanity. Thoreau writes regarding the existence of slavery (and the need to abolish it) that “the opponents to a reform are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture that they are in humanity”. While it may be easier to blame politicians for not doing something (like abolishing slavery), Thoreau’s challenge is to the everyday citizen who allows it to exist, asking “what is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today?” with a response of “they hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have to regret”.

Thoreau finds such an approach problematic - hence why he theorizes democracy through the acts of civil disobedience. And with such a theory, one might be a bit overwhelmed. In this age of 24-hour news and a “machinery” that is much bigger and more complex that Thoreau could have imagined. Thoreau realized this writing

It is not man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.
If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.
Such an approach is challenging. It requires vigilance and respect for others, and arguably it challenges the concept of competition, in favor of collaboration and compromise. How do we pursue our goals, our thoughts without doing so at the detriment of others? Is it possible even or a mere pipe dream?

For Thoreau it was a way of life - he himself being imprisoned for his refusal to pay taxes he did not feel were just. He faced the consequences of his decision, but he cultivated a democratic sensibility that allowed him to “do” democracy through contesting it. As Kaplan writes “Thoreau’s texts are ‘queer’ in this insistence on the centrality of nonconformity to democratic politics and on the idiosyncrsy, conflict, and recalcitrance of desire in the ethics of self-making” (177). Dissenting from democracy and cultivating the self through the “doing” of and “thinking through” issues was not the goal, though, for Thoreau writes:
I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make find distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for conformity.
He believes that through actions - through cultivating a democratic self - things may change and when they do, he will embrace and conform to them . . . with of course the understanding (the sensibility) that he will remain vigilant and continue to engage the democratic struggle for governing the self, relating to the other, and living humanely.

I end where Thoreau ends with both a recognition and the imagination. He writes
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. I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even world not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who are fulfilled by all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
In this attempt to develop a theory of civil disobedience then Thoreau challenges his readers to take responsibility for the world they live in and see democracy not as a form of government, that through voting we participate in, but democracy as an opportunity to fashion a self under the assumption that humans are free and have intelligence to cultivate a way of life, a self, and relations with others that are complicated, challenging, but hopefully fulfilling, joyful, and dutiful.


Kaplan, M. B. (1997). Sexual Justice: Democratic Citizenship and the Politics of Desire. New York: Routledge.

Thoreau, H. D. (1849). "Civil Disobedience". Accessed at:

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