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Thread: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience

  1. #1 Thoreau on Civil Disobedience 
    Forum Masters Degree samcdkey's Avatar
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    Jun 2006
    I read this essay yesterday after a long time and was struck by how much it applies to the situation in the world today.

    On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

    We have men of conscience blindly walking into unjust wars, people who label themselves as secular and just turning a blind eye to apartheid and corruption, funding oppression with their tax dollars

    After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest [4]. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? - in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys [5], and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts - a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments, though it may be, -

    "Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
    As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
    Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
    O'er the grave where out hero was buried." [6]

    The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus [7], etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw, or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the State chiefly with their heads; and, as the rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be "clay," and "stop a hole to keep the wind away," [8] but leave that office to his dust at least: -

    "I am too high born to be propertied,
    To be a secondary at control,
    Or useful serving-man and instrument
    To any sovereign state throughout the world." [9]

    He who gives himself entirely to his fellow men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.
    Are people today cowards of conscience?

    Do they prefer a negative peace where the voices of the disenfranchised and oppressed are silenced rather than the social clamour of justice?

    Where are the Thoreaus of today?

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  3. #2  
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    Jan 2010
    thanks for sharing. I like it very much. Especially this one: a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.

    Not only the government system, but the corporate practice is not consistent with humanity.

    How do you guys think of capitalism. Will it be substituted by some other system some day. I don't think the current system is sustainable. Just like in Avatar.

    social enterprise with a conscience
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  4. #3  
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    of course it's not sustainable. one merely has to look at its entire history, it originated just prior to the industrial revolution. after the boom of the industrial revolution, capitalism became a system in which constant growth was required. as a result of this the capitalist nations of europe took on the idea of imperialism.

    during this time capitalism looked great, but that's because we were raping the earth destroying not only our own lands but those of all the nations that mined the earth to sell materials to the capitalists.

    in the end the constant growth led to constant decay of the earth. currently people like to talk as if it's over, but it's still at its peak. we're almost fully reliant on a substance that we had almost no use for 200 years ago(fossil fuels). when these materials run out(thank overconsumption for that) we're screwed. currently we have a small percent of renewable energy that we can rely on for a long time. and we also have the potential to use nuclear energy for quite a while(that's not renewable, just longer lasting).

    if we try to sustain the current system even with 100% renewable energy, even assuming we have an unlimited supply of this energy, growth still isn't sustainable. if we continue at a rate of even slow growth, we will soon(under 5000 years) be completely overcrowded on earth.

    the only way to sustain growth is to have growth in all areas, especially the size of land we're occupying. this can only be done by colinizing other planets. and with imperialism as our example, this is proven morally unacceptable if life exists there.

    no one will go for it, but the only answer to keeping us all on earth is that we need to have a 2 child limit on all couples. or just a one child limit per person, where in a couple one parent claims one while the other parent claims the other child.
    physics: accurate, objective, boring
    chemistry: accurate if physics is accurate, slightly subjective, you can blow stuff up
    biology: accurate if chemistry is accurate, somewhat subjective, fascinating
    religion: accurate if people are always right, highly subjective, bewildering
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  5. #4  
    gc is offline
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    Quote Originally Posted by yohann
    How do you guys think of capitalism. Will it be substituted by some other system some day.
    I don't think so. There are problems with capitalism when the system is abused, for example when the environment is harmed, and there needs to be regulations in place to prevent this. However, capitalism itself is not a problem, in my opinion. I have always said that what happens between consenting adults is none of my business...and this includes the exchange of money for goods and services.
    Is the whole world crazy, or is it just me?
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