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political theory

The Transcendentalists Had it Right

Political activism for over a hundred years.
Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were both founders of transcendentalism literature. Transcendentalists emphasized the importance of the over-soul, and man's connection with nature. The goal of transcendentalism was to get individuals to develop a spiritual sense and convey a moral message. People should focus on doing what is right by using their brain and reason. Transcendentalists thought people should follow justice, not the law. The idea in Emerson's "Self Reliance" and Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" is that freedom and individualism comes along with being a nonconformist. "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist... Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have suffrage of the world... A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." (Emerson, Self-Reliance, pp. 215, 216, 218) Transcendentalism is not around any more as a political force. However, the ideas behind their philosophy may be seen in environmentalism, and the idea of civil disobedience has since been around in the form of political activism.

Thoreau thought that everyone in society has an obligation not to conform to what the government says is moral and right, and true freedom could only be achieved by individuals who oppose conformity. He didn't think people should conform to the majority, because the majority was not always right and moral. People should stand up and make their voice heard. He thought the path to freedom and individualism is making moral decisions based upon your own personal beliefs. Thoreau's message was that there was a higher law than the civil one, and people should be able to rule themselves freely, how ever they please. He thought the rights of man should be held higher than the rights provided by the law. I would agree with him by saying that people should form their own beliefs about what is right and moral. Still today unfortunately, society's authority figures inhibit individual freedom through laws and social institutions.

During the time of transcendentalism the political issues were slavery and the Mexican War. This was the time of manifest destiny, and Thoreau thought the government was appeasing the south. He said the silent minority opposing these issues were just as guilty as the majority, because they wouldn't stand up for their beliefs. He wanted to get his voice heard on the issue of slavery, which he thought was morally wrong. He decided to stop paying his poll tax to a government that supported slavery and a war against Mexico, which he considered an immoral war. According to Thoreau, it was okay to break the law. "if it is such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law." (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, p. 8) For not paying his poll tax for six years, Thoreau ended up spending one night in jail. He thought people must accept the consequences of civil disobedience. Thoreau states, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, p. 9)

Thoreau believes that the government is a tool used by individuals. "The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will" (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, p.1) He also states that people are machines of the government. "The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies." (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, p. 3) Thoreau makes a good point about people being machines of the government. For example, look at how many citizens vote in elections. Each citizen is supposed to support the winner of the election, whether or not it is the candidate that the individual voted for. I can't remember the last time a president won an election with a majority percentage of the votes. Has that ever happened? How many people actually vote? Thoreau doesn't even think voting is actively participating in politics. He calls it a copout for people who won't express their beliefs. I agree. Standing up is a way to tell other people what you are thinking. Thoreau writes, "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail." (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, p. 5) If we as individuals oppose the views of our elected representatives, should we display acts of civil disobedience? I think that the more individualistic we become, the farther apart our views become. This could create major problems in society, and even lead towards anarchy. How does an individual maintain identity and still be an active and responsible member of the state? Thoreau fails to answer this question. People just need to find a common ground.

On the first page of "Civil Disobedience", Thoreau says, "That government is best which governs not at all." In my opinion this is bit extreme, because some form of government is needed to prevent chaos and disorder. I think that some people (republicans) would probably rather conform to the majority and give up some individual rights and freedoms to prevent anarchy. Along with conformity comes security. Society needs to find a medium between lack of government and too much government. Guess and check, cost vs. benefit. Natural selection is blind, and so is justice. The only thing we can hope to do is learn from our past, and dream of world of peace and freedom. Some individuals will always have more freedoms than others, and each person's path to freedom, individualism, and self-fulfillment is different.
A connection 17.Apr.2004 13:25

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"How does an individual maintain identity and still be an active and responsible member of the state? Thoreau fails to answer this question."

"The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will"


"That government is best which governs not at all."

Sup Marcos says something like, a good government obeys.

It is confusing that we have words, "government", meaning the instrument which the people have chosen to execute their will, which should obey the people; and, "to govern", meaning to tell people what to do, which the people should obey.

Perhaps we need a different word, one which means obeying the people. And, of course, a people with a will : Our danger lies not in creating an organization to build roads for us, but in asking it to think for us.


Thank you for posting this.

To vote or not to vote, is that a copout? 17.Apr.2004 14:10

politics as possible

The article states, "Thoreau doesn't even think voting is actively participating in politics. He calls it a copout for people who won't express their beliefs." This is hardly a direct quote from Thoreau, nor are there any citations to explain the paraphrase of Thoreau's ideas on voting. What would Thoreau have said if there were no poll tax and if everyone were allowed to vote (including women and African-Americans), as it is today, and yet half or more of the people don't bother to vote? I don't know what Thoreau would say if he were alive today, any more than I know what Jesus would do --- but I do know that it isn't possible to extrapolate directly from Thoreau's experience almost two centuries ago into the mess that we have on our hands today.

But let's say that there is something to the idea that voting can be a copout for people who won't express their beliefs in more radical ways. Then, isn't it equally true that NOT VOTING can also be a copout for people who won't express their beliefs in more radical ways? Isn't the point whether or how to express our beliefs and ideals in some way or another?

copout is making to vote an issue 17.Apr.2004 18:46

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There is not much point in expressing your belief,
if it is merely a belief which was implanted in your head,
for example by CNN, or Karl Marx.

I think you need to inform your beliefs,
know what is happening in the world,
know what are your neighbours' beliefs,
learn how to fit the neighbourhood beliefs together.

Politics :
what is good for me,
what is good for you,
what is good for us,
who is 'us'.