Henry David Thoreau was an American author, philosopher and historian. The roots of the political views of Thoreau derive from Transcendentalism - a philosophy that became influential in the late 18th century and 19th century. Transcendentalism rejects the idea that knowledge can be fully derived from experience and observation of the physical world. American transcendentalism reached its peak in New England in the 1840s, under the leadership of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson argued that, while the physical world is important, providing us with necessary goods and frequent beauty, people should live their lives based on truths grasped through reason, not just physical perception. Emerson served as a mentor to Thoreau, who became another leading American transcendentalist. His philosophic essay “Civil Disobedience” later influenced the political actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.
Thoreau opens Civil Disobedience by saying that he agrees with the motto, "That government is best which governs least." Indeed, he says, men will someday be able to have a government that does not govern at all. As it is, government rarely proves useful or efficient. It is often "abused and perverted" so that it no longer represents the will of the people. The Mexican-American War illustrates this phenomenon.
Thoreau 's essay is both an abstract work of political theory and a practical and topical work addressing the issues of the day. On the one hand, Thoreau is making several theoretical claims about the nature of democracy and the relationship between citizen and government. For example, Thoreau argues that government should be based on conscience a...
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...'s protection and in suffering harassment to one 's family, than in sacrificing one 's integrity in passive compliance with the government 's unjust policies. For if he were to sacrifice his integrity, Thoreau explains, "I should feel as if I were worth less" as a person.
In his last paragraph, Thoreau comes full circle to discussing the authority and reach of government, which derives from the “sanction and consent of the governed.”Democracy is not the last step in the evolution of government, as there is still greater room for the State to recognize the freedom and rights of the individual. Thoreau concludes on a utopian note, saying such a “perfect and glorious State” is one he has imagined”but not yet anywhere seen.” He presents his idea for an idealistic world in which the government would allow people to choose to live independently of the government itself.
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