Thoreau and the duty of disobedience

English: Portrait by Benjamin D. Maxham (dague...

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Tribute to: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Thoreau was convinced that he was not on earth to please anybody, but to be authentically. He noted in his laconic style: “The lawyer’s truth is consequence.”To retreat obstinately into the wood hating the surrounding society, living in a block hut alike Thoreau: I don’t advise this method to the complete population nowadays (we have no trees enough, I think).

“Because they could not seize my thoughts, they decided, to punish my body…”: this sentence was the first,which remained in my memory, consolidated in my soul, reason enough, to explore more about this Henry David Thoreau (12.7.1817-2.5.1862). He moved in the same circles of society-critical network as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), in the middle of the 19th century at the American east coast. Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” has left behind world-wide effects: Gandhi carried it during his frequent prison stays in his pocket (later India attained home rule and racial integration), Hermann Hesse (Siddharta) was influenced, the resistance against Hitler-Germany used it for backbone-stabilization, Martin Luther King Jr. or Joan Baez were inspired by him, Bertrand Russell, Nelson Mandela or the philosopher Herbert Marcuse (19.7.1898-29.7.1979) took possession of Thoreau’s patterns of thinking. Thoreau was ever convinced that he was not on earth to please anybody, but rather to be authentically. Of course Thoreau’s rugged individualism is not the very first in the history of philosophy. Forerunner structures can be found in the “Antigone” of Sophokles (translated in earlier years by Thoreau himself) or in the thoughts of Confucius (well known to Thoreau) or in the essay of Boetie, a friend of the french philosopher Montaigne: Boetie wrote about “discours sur la servitude volontaire”. As a guidance to nowadays political actions Thoreau’s spectrum of opinions probably is no longer suitable. One should reflect on the more and more complicated administrative systems, the clever governments and political leaders, their artfulness of subterfuge, their underhand stratagems, the many snares layed out by laws and remissions, injunctions and decrees; don’t forget the sometimes dull executive. They made themselves fitter than ever to overcome all sorts of social resistance. Instead of paying a poll tax Thoreau once upon a time spent a night in jail. Inspired from this classic treatise on passive, nonviolent resistance you may decide to make a sit-down-strike against crusaders and reverse-crusaders or an action, refusing to pay money for the electricity, because you like to restrain the atomic age: be sure: you will not change the direction of the politicians passing by.

They will think you are a little bit farcical. To retreat obstinately into the wood living in a block hut alike Thoreau: I don’t advise this method to the broad of the population in the present days, at least take a look at the medical supply situation thus worsened. Linguistically however could start a new era of Thoreau’s effectiveness, if there were increasingly sensitive readers. A futile hope? Think about the sentence “I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” What sort of consequences and changing the rules of behaviour are TODAY necessary to realize such a direction of self-reliance? Let’s finish with another quotation of a sentence, which this extraordinary American philosopher wrote – and I never can forget these words like the one in the beginning of my review. He noted in his laconic style: “The lawyer’s truth is consequence.” Means: Without action following a decision, supporting something is useless. It inspired me to write a book concerning “The Persistance of the Philosophers” – and to take a daily walk down by the riverside …


“Da sie mich nicht fassen konnten, beschlossen sie, meinen Körper zu bestrafen…” dieser Satz war der erste, der mir im Gedächtnis, ja in der Seele hängen blieb, Anlass genug, auszukundschaften, um wen es sich bei diesem Henry David Thoreau (12.7.1817-2.5.1862) handelt.

Er war dem Kreis des gesellschaftskritischen Netzwerks um Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) zuzurechnen, das sich Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts an der amerikanischen Ostküste etablierte. Thoreaus “CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE” (“Über die Pflicht zum Ungehorsam gegen den Staat”) – dieser Text hat weltweit Wirkungen hinterlassen.

Gandhi trug ihn bei seinen häufigen Gefängnisaufenthalten bei sich, Hermann Hesse beein-flusste er nicht unwesentlich, die Resistance gegen Hitler-Deutschland benutzte ihn zur Rückgrat-Stärkung, Martin Luther King oder Joan Baez waren davon inspiriert, Herbert Marcuse nahm ihn in sein Nachdenken auf.

Thoreaus Denken ist natürlich nicht originär – was zumeist auf alles Denken zutreffen dürfte, wenn man ehrlich ist. Vorläufer-Strukturen findet man in der “Antigone” des Sophokles (von Thoreau übersetzt) oder in dem Essay des Montaigne-Freundes Boetie “Discours sur la servitude volontaire”.

Als Handlungsanleitung für politische Aktionen dürfte Thoreaus Meinungsspektrum angesichts der immer komplizierter werdenden administrativen Systeme, die sich auf alle Formen von Widerstand immer geschickter einzurichten wissen, wohl heutzutage nicht mehr taugen. Mit Sitzstreik oder Stromgeld-Verweigerung dürfte kaum mehr eine globale Weltverbesserung, viel eher jedoch die Lächerlichkeit des peinlich Skurrilen erreicht werden.

Der Rückzug in eine Thoreausche Waldblockhütte dürfte – allein schon angesichts der somit verschlechterten medizinischen Versorgungs-lage – nicht eine den breiten Bevölkerungsschichten anzuratende Methode sein.

Aber eine kreative, umgestaltende, den neuen Situationen unserer Gegenwart angepasste Thoreausche Denkweise, könnte eine wesentliche Hilfe für einen Wechsel in einen sinnvolleren “Öko”-Lebensstil sein…

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