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Henry Thoreau & Gandhi

An American author and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817- May 6 1862) is best known for his essay “Civil Disobedience,” where he discusses the moral opposition of an individual to an unjust government. His refusal to pay taxes and abolitionist very much unpopular with the state while his philosophy of non-violent resistance have gained him believers spanning the generations after his death. Among those influenced heavily by his writings was Mohandas K. Gandhi (October 2, 1869 – January 30, 1948) one of the most prominent political and spiritual leaders of India and the Indian movement for independence.

These two men born on different continents would experience remarkably similar events that test the fortitude of their principles. Both Thoreau and Gandhi suffered personal injustices that ultimately led them to consider their position on law, justice and the political and societal state of affairs in their respective nations. Thoreau’s first brush with the law came in 1846 when he refused to pay a poll tax. He believed that the tax supported the American-Mexican War of which he was against.

For Thoreau, following the law was not always synonymous with doing what is right. (Thoreau 9) In 1848 Thoreau wrote an essay meant to bring to a wider audience his ideas and protest. Delivered as a two part lecture at the Concord Lyceum, Thoreau’s discourse was titled “The Relation of the Individual to the State. ” It was first published a year later with the title “Resistance to Civil Government. ” It was only after his death in 1862 that the paper was included in a collection of his works entitled “Civil Disobedience. “

While Thoreau cannot lay claim to originality in his ideas since thoughts on civil disobedience started in Classical Greece, his manner of presenting them was most persuasive and fiery that he succeeded in gaining a widespread international readership. Gandhi used it as a text for his civil disobedience campaigns in India and Africa; it was a handbook for political action used by the British labor party in its early days; it was frequently cited by Martin Luther King, Jr. , during the civil rights campaigns in the American South.

During the sixties and early seventies, it was also used by the anti-Vietnam War movement as inspiration for its sit-ins. (Thoreau 9) In his writings, Thoreau highlighted contemporary political events and related it to the circumstances of his situation. He used narrative to great effect in explaining the conflict between a person’s conscience and the power of government. 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. (Thoreau 48) Thoreau believed that the achievement of a nation is due to its people and not the government. Following this line of thought, he maintained “That government is best which governs least” (Thoreau 47) When Gandhi was still a young lawyer in South Africa he achieved political reform for the rights of “colored” people through his method of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.

He later used this same method to push for the independence of India from the British. In everything he did, Gandhi never forced the issued on his adversaries but rather he appealed to them. “Appeal” was the key to Gandhi’s politics. He appealed to the common sense and morality of his adversary. It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow-beings. (Fischer 44) Despite their similar principles of non-violent civil disobedience and standing up for rights, Thoreau and Gandhi differed in their definition of action.

For the American writer who was highly individualistic, action is internal and personal and that action is defined by one’s withdrawal of support for things that he considers are morally wrong like unjust laws and war. Thoreau believed that a person’s civil disobedience action is aimed at preserving each person’s right to live as he pleases without being imposed upon by the majority or by the state. Gandhi on the other hand utilized civil disobedience as a vehicle towards change and reform. Gandhi encouraged the masses to turn away from violent reform and put aside the social castes among the Hindus.

He wanted progress and independence for all Indians regardless of religion and caste. Like Thoreau, Gandhi encouraged disobedience to unjust laws and systems. Unlike Thoreau, Gandhi and his followers had a greater purpose in mind and that was to inspire respect and bring attention to their cause so that India may unite and become independent. They believed in using disobedience and uniting the Indians can bring about change. If jail was the way to do it, Gandhi said that Indians should be willing to go to jail cheerfully and civilly.

In so doing, Indians would also be removing power from their oppressors who could do nothing once it was clear that Indians no longer feared the threat of jail or punishment. The concept and action of civil disobedience to Thoreau was an individual, civilian right. In some ways it may seem selfish, but such thoughts as Thoreau had could well be considered the seeds of what is known now as democracy. With his writing, come a glimmer of the idea that a nation’s citizens should not follow blindly “laws” set by a government.

Thoreau believed that nothing a person can do could change the nature of things and the system by which a society is run. A citizen cannot impose his moral beliefs on others or even hope to change the current state of affairs but at least, he should be able to stand for it as a matter of principle even if it means going to jail. Gandhi defined “civil disobedience” literally and actively. His interpretation of the action of disobedience was apparent when he told the Indian people to go ahead and break unjust laws in a civil and polite way.

He was fiercely against violence and the breaking of laws by people who had no respect for the law in the first place. He believed that the only way the Indians can win respect and prove their ability to self-govern was if educated, law-respecting people would express their dissent with unjust laws and systems by politely declining to obey. Jail time was just proof of how Thoreau and the people of India stood on things as a “matter of principle. ” Both Thoreau and Gandhi have been at the forefront of non-violent civil disobedience. While Thoreau was more of a civilian philosopher, Gandhi put the ideas into action.

Thoreau’s ideas gained wide spread popularity after his death while Gandhi killed by an assassin just when the nation of India was just starting to get on its feet. It is a pity that both of them were not able to see the full fruition of their labors. Their ideals and belief in human rights however, live on.

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry David. The Major Essays of Henry David Thoreau. Ed. Richard Dillman. Albany, NY: Whitston Publishing, 2001. Questia. 16 Oct. 2007 <http://www. questia. com/PM. qst? a=o&d=82289713>. Fisher, Louis. The Essential Gandhi An Anthology Of His Writings On His Life, Work, and Ideas, NY: Random House, Inc. 1962

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