Philosophers, historians, authors, and politicians have spent centuries
pondering the relationship between citizens and their government. It is a
question that has as many considerations as there are forms of government and it
is rarely answered satisfactorily. A relatively modern theorist, author Henry
Thoreau, introduced an idea of man as an individual, rather than a subject, by
thoroughly describing the way a citizen should live many of his works. He
indirectly supplements the arguments he presents in his essay Civil Disobedience
through a comprehensive selection of adages found in his other works. In
particular, the phrases “A simple and independent mind does not toil at the
bidding of any prince” and “To be awake is to be alive.
I have never
met a man who is quite awake” support many of the arguments in Civil
Disobedience because they help to explicate the complex ideas Thoreau presents.
The phrase “A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of
any prince” regards the responsibilities of a man to his own
consciousnessit is a duty that can not be revoked by any form of tyrant.
Rather than hinting at a type of anarchy, this statement merely describes each
mans duty to performing justice in all his actions. This does not refer to
any “mans duty…
to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the
most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him;
but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no
thought longer, not to give it practically his support” (681). The term
“simple” does not refer to an underdeveloped sense of morality; it
describes a state of mind in which the concept of justice is so defined that
contradictions cannot exist. To toil, as it is presented in this quotation,
means to sacrifice ideals for the sake of conformity or law. The only real power
the State holds over any individual is the promise of brute force; it
“never intentionally confronts a mans sense, intellectual or moral, but
only his body, his senses” (687). Therefore, many acts the State requires
will be unjustthey can and will force a man to slave for the sake of an
ordeal he does not believe in. As Thoreau notes in Civil Disobedience, “a
wise man will only be useful as a man” (678).
In essence, Thoreau believes
that a man who toils at any ruling institutions bidding simply because it bid
him to do so sacrifices his own facilities as a human being. He then becomes
nothing more than a man put “on a level with wood and earth and stones…
Commanding no more respect than men of straw, or a lump of dirt” (678).
Another quotation that helps to explicate Thoreaus Civil Disobedience is
“To be awake is to be alive.
I have never yet met a man who was quite
awake.” In this phrase, Thoreau uses the term “awake” as an
euphemism for being fully aware of ones concept of right and fully in control
of ones moral and physical existence. Understandably, people who are
consistently awake, in this sense of the word, are hard to find: “There are
nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man” (680).
Also, the fact that Thoreau has “never met a man who was quite awake”
implies that fully conscious individuals have difficulty existing in modern
society. In fact, Thoreau believes that “no man with a genius for
legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the
Perhaps, by the word “awake,” and its equation with
“alive,” Thoreau is also referring to the ability to fulfill his own
mission: “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to
live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad” (683). Although this concept
is not a particularly unique one, it is nearly impossible to fulfill
completelybut to fulfill it partially is useless. As a living being, one must
“cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole
influence” (684). To truly be alive, one must be consciously satisfied with
every passing moment. Through his conscientious support of every facet of his
philosophy, Thoreau effectively proves his statements regarding citizenship and
government. He remains consistent to nearly every idea he presents and therefore
surrounds them with a seriousness that cannot be ignored.
Thoreau, Henry. “Civil Disobedience.” Elements of Argument: A text
and Reader. Ed. Annette T. Rottenberg.