by Wendy McElroy, originally published on the Mises site
As the crazed election season approaches and straw hats are dusted off, it is prudent to remember what the 19th-century American anarchist Henry David Thoreau called "the business of living."
Although most libertarians know Thoreau through his short essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849) or, perhaps, through his short book Walden, Or Life in the Woods (1854), the vast majority of Thoreau's work dealt with nature — with flora and fauna — rather than politics. His writing reflected a deep commitment to the business of living. He gloried in wandering the woods and fields surrounding his home. No detail was too small for his journals to record: a broken blade of grass, a few berries hidden behind a leaf, a new tone to a bird call, the movement of an insect. A pure and simple joy in life leaps out of Thoreau's journals, which were lauded in their day.
No one in his intellectual circle, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson, seemed to think Thoreau's political writing would stand the test of time. After Thoreau's early death, his sister Sophia sorted his uncollected works into multiple volumes to be published through Ticknor and Fields. Thoreau's political essays were held until last, and they appeared in a volume entitled A Yankee in Canada with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (1866). The volume included "Civil Disobedience," which was sandwiched inauspiciously between "Prayers" and "A Plea for Captain John Brown."
Had it not been for a young crusader for Indian independence named Mohandas Gandhi, the essay might have remained just an oddity in among Thoreau's writings on nature. Gandhi read "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" (one of the essay's various titles) while he sat in a South African prison for the crime of nonviolently protesting discrimination against the Indian population in the Transvaal. The essay galvanized Gandhi, who wrote and published a synopsis of Thoreau's argument, calling its "incisive logic … unanswerable" and referring to Thoreau as "one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced."
Largely through Gandhi, Thoreau's essay gained such powerful admirers as civil-rights leader Martin Luther King. Thus, Thoreau's politics took a strange and circuitous route back home, where it became one of the most influential political tracts ever written by an American.
No one would have been more surprised than Thoreau himself, to whom the business of living was immensely more important than politics.
And I believe he would have objected to the retitling of his famous essay as "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." Thoreau did not consider resisting the state to be a duty that people must assume. Quite the opposite. He considered the only true duty, which every man owed to himself, to be the business of living as deeply and honestly as possible. It was only when living honestly came into conflict with the law or other expressions of authority that it became necessary for people to take a political stand.
Thoreau's famous act of civil disobedience — the refusal to pay a tax that supported war — was not the act of a determined political dissident, although he had spoken out against war before. His one night in jail came about only because the state literally knocked on his front door in the form of a tax collector. At that point, when looking the state in the face, Thoreau had to make a choice.
He believed the Mexican-American War was immoral: it violated both his sense of decency and his theory of rights. As long as Thoreau was not forced to participate in this "evil" by supporting it, he seemed content to go about the business of living — of enjoying nature, family, and friends. Participation in the oppression of others, however, was where Thoreau drew a hard line, because it went against his duty to live honestly.
When Thoreau was released from jail, he immediately went on a berry hunt with a swarm of young boys. No bitterness. Thoreau simply returned to living deeply without missing a beat. This post-jail quest for berries occasioned my favorite line from all of Thoreau's writings: As he tramped the trails in search of juicy treasure, Thoreau found himself standing on a high point in a field. He gazed about at the continuous, sprawling beauty that surrounded him and observed "the State was nowhere to be seen."
It is far more difficult today than in Thoreau's time to find places where the state cannot be seen. But, perhaps, this makes it far more important to try.
For many people, the state disappears in the conduct of their private lives with family and friends, where the bonds of affection and trust have nothing whatsoever to do with government law. Other people lose themselves in hobbies like raising animals, in work about which they are passionate, or in acts of charity that no one mandates.
In his berry-picking insight, I believe Thoreau to be correct. There is no duty to confront the state except when it seeks to make you an active accomplice in the oppression of others. Those who stand up against the injustice of others are to be applauded, but they should not do so at the expense of their primary duty: to live deeply and honestly. This duty involves pushing back or walking away (when possible) from the areas of life in which the state commands jurisdiction. Make space, instead, for the ones that allow you to say "Here, the state is nowhere to be seen."
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