Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) was one of the great U.S. writers of the 19th century and perhaps the greatest of all U.S. nature writers. He is best known as the man who fled from civilization to live alone, with nature, at Walden Pond. His masterpiece, Walden, recounts that experience. In the nonviolence tradition, Thoreau is best remembered as the author of the essay, "Civil Disobedience." This was the first great declaration of the right and duty to commit civil disobedience, to set the demands of conscience above the demands of the law and the ruling authorities.

At first glance, Walden and "Civil Disobedience" seem as if they are written by two different people: one who wants to escape human society, including its political strife, and one who thinks deeply about political issues and takes strong political stands. But these two are the same man. This raises the obvious question: Was Thoreau’s commitment to civil disobedience, and his political thinking in general, related in any way to his larger philosophy of nature?

Scholars who study Thoreau give different answers. Some see him as an anti-political writer, concerned only with his individual self, not with society at large. They claim that he dealt with politics only peripherally, as one of the many ways he found to shape a better self. Others see Thoreau as a full-fledged political and social critic, vitally concerned with the improvement of his society. These different views of Thoreau may depend on which of his writings a scholar studies. Thoreau was a friend, and in some sense a disciple, of Emerson, who said that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Thoreau certainly took these words to heart. Even more than most writers in the nonviolence tradition, he made no effort at systematic philosophy. He did not try to fit his thoughts into a single intellectual framework that stayed the same over the years. He wrote whatever he was inspired to write at the moment. Therefore, his ideas were always changing.

Nevertheless, some scholars do find underlying principles that endured throughout Thoreau’s mature writings. And some see those principles fitting together in a coherent whole, with political and social concerns an integral part of the overall structure. This approach is especially useful for understanding his commitment to civil disobedience, which was a vital contribution to the idea of nonviolence. So we shall approach Thoreau as a man and a writer who had important and philosophically consistent things to say about every aspect of human life, including the political.


All of Thoreau's ideas were rooted in a somewhat vague yet very powerful set of religious convictions. He expressed them best by using Walden Pond, his famous home for three years, as a metaphor. The pond "was made deep and pure for a symbol," he wrote. "While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless." In fact, though, "There is a solid bottom everywhere." In other words, beneath the finite appearances of life there is an infinite, ultimate reality that is the foundation of everything. Ultimate reality is not something set apart from the world; it is the essence of the world and all that is in it.

Everything changes, but the foundation of reality is eternal: "Only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence.…Petty fears and petty desires are but the shadow of the reality." Thoreau wanted to be aware at every moment of the great and worthy things: "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains."

For Thoreau, the "solid bottom" of reality is actually a dynamic process of spiritual powers, which are "identified with the substance of things, they cannot be separated from them." That process is manifest most clearly in the eternal laws of nature, which were created by God: "Nearest to all things is that power which fashions their being. Next to us the grandest laws are continually being executed." "If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point." "As I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine needles…I am reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over me the human insect." Nature teaches, better than anything else, the interconnectedness of all reality, the spiritual unity of the cosmos.

Thoreau's religious life, which was for him the sum total of his life, was a quest for direct experience of this spiritual process of ultimate reality. He lamented that most people live by what they imagine to be true or what others say is true. That was not good enough for him. He wanted constant, intense contact with that reality. " We are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us." "A voice said to him—Why do you stay here and live this mean and moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these." His way of experiencing ultimate reality directly and living "a glorious existence" was to live in immediate contact with nature, directly under its laws: "I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life…to walk with the Builder of the universe, if I may."

For Thoreau, the human mind is our access to infinite reality. He urged everyone to make their mind temple, consecrated to the service of the gods." "If I were confined to a corner of a garrett all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me." To experience reality directly is to know absolute truth. But the quest for absolute reality is not merely an intellectual exercise. It is also an act of moral improvement and purification:

"There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice.…The laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive.…We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers.…If I knew so wise a man as could teach me purity I would go seek him forthwith.…The generative energy which, when we are loose, dissipates and makes us unclean, when we are continent invigorate and inspires us. Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open.

Mind is the way to the absolute. This led Thoreau to a principle that was absolutely crucial for him: since every person's mind is different, every person has their own unique route to the absolute. Everyone has their own unique way to fit into the divine plan. "I would have each one be very careful and find out his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead." So he urged everyone to dig always deeper toward the truth: "Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state.…Explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s own being.…Let them wander and scrutinize the outlandish Australians. I have more of God, they more of the road."

Thoreau made this notion the center of his philosophy. If each person's way to truth is different, then each person's path in life must be unique. The goal of life is to discover and fulfill one's own destiny, not to accept it second-hand from others: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." The only way to discover the truth of reality is to follow one's own conscience.

The great evil of human life is conformity to the beliefs, values, and behaviors of others. Yet conformity was virtually all that Thoreau saw around him, in Boston and its suburbs in the 1830s and 1840s. A man expressing his own opinion was "a phenomenon so rare that I would any day walk ten miles to observe it." He understood that every society produces social institutions and routines that confine the individual. But he saw conformity to the rules and routines made by others as the main threat to the independent search for the truth. And he saw political life as a constant spur to conformity, because it is always a matter of coercion. Yet Thoreau did not blame political leaders. When they impose their will on the masses, he said, the fault lies with the masses who let themselves be coerced.

Thoreau added economic to political analysis. He lived at a time when industrialization and the new market economy were changing every aspect of life. His main complaint was that the dominance of marketplace thinking reduced all individual freedom to the economic terms of free enterprise—the freedom to produce, sell, and buy goods. Therefore people no longer understood the real meaning of human freedom. He lamented the "seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters." People were fascinated by the rapid advances in technology and the freedom it seemed to open up. But their lives were being narrowed to fit the confines of what technology allowed and demanded: "But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools." Most people cared only about the trivial and superficial aspects of life related to material goods. Moreover, the luxuries of life were too often produced by systems that depended, somewhere along the line, on slavery or war.

"Simplify, simplify," was Thoreau’s famous prescription. A person who does not own or use luxuries does not have to depend on the market economy. Therefore he or she can escape its corrupting influence and superficial life. "The only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these [material luxuries], and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things." With enough simplicity, he argued, a person can become really free, which means free to improve the self morally and indeed to re-create the self. But he saw little of such freedom in the people around him. Instead he saw conformity, superficiality, and enslavement to petty things.

The scholars who view Thoreau as a social and political critic say that he went into nature to get a critical distance from society, to be able to question the status quo and understand it better. He wanted to be a prophetic critic, to alert society to the gap between its spiritual ideals and the way people really lived. He intended to "brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up." He assumed that people are capable of waking up and raising the moral level of their society. He assumed that it is always possible to transcend or go beyond the present status quo: "I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor"

The first step in that endeavor is to imagine the highest moral ideals. The second step is to change one’s life to move closer to them. As a writer, Thoreau took his role to be both imagining the ideals and encouraging people to strive toward them. The second part was more important than the first. People know what is morally good, he said, but they don’t do it. They need courage in order to carry out the needed reforms. They will have that courage if they get the right encouragement. That was his self-appointed task. He went to live at Walden Pond to create an example of a morally independent and responsible citizen. He wanted to prove his point more by the example of his life than by logic. In this sense, his life itself became a political statement. At the same time, though, he hoped that his words about nature would provoke a radically new perspective, which would lead to radical political change.

For Thoreau, nature was more than a symbol of freedom. It was the very source of freedom. Only by leaving human society, he argued, could he gain direct access to God's cosmic laws, simplify his life, and escape the pressures of conformity. Direct contact with nature made him conscious of his own unique relationship with nature, he said. He could discover processes of nature as they moved through his own self. That made him directly conscious of the spiritual unity of the cosmos. From that perspective of unity, everything has its proper role and value: "Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?" Nature teaches how to see from a cosmic perspective, not the petty perspective of human utility.

Thoreau felt it necessary to be in constant contact with wilderness for personal re-creation. But he did not expect to merge into nature. He understood that he remained always a conscious human being, unable to live permanently in wilderness. He also saw a danger of gaining too much distance from society and cutting himself off from other people. Precisely because of his human consciousness, he always had to know himself as both a part of nature and a "spectator" standing apart from nature. He was not seeking to accept his natural self, but to learn from nature to improve his moral self. That meant transcending nature to move closer to the spirit:

The spirit can for the time pervade and control every member and function of the body and transmute what in form is the grossest sensuality into purity and devotion.…He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established.…Nature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome.…All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.

Thoreau's ideal was not reverting to nature, but creating an ideal blend of nature and civilization. In some ways, his ideal was symbolized by the frontier, the place where humans are always meeting and taming the wilderness, but running the risk of imposing too much civilization. So he looked to nature to teach, not how to live outside society, but how to live in a better society. He viewed nature as the best model for a good society. In a good society, all people would be in their natural state, equal and equally innocent. All would relate to each other organically and authentically. Each individual, and the whole society, would show that it is rooted directly in its spiritual grounding. There would be constant diversity and surprise. The eternal laws of nature offer a symbol for the eternal laws of human justice. Just as there is rebirth in nature, so there is always hope for better justice in the future.


Thoreau was not a pure nature mystic, as he is sometimes pictured. He had a clear grasp of social and political facts. He understood that people live in groups, that every group is shaped by power relationships, and that these relationships create historical and social structures, which become the human environment. (For example, he was acutely aware of the history of white-Indian relationships as the context for all human experience in the United States.) His close contact with nature showed him all the more clearly that human institutions and human categories are artificially constructed. And his life in society showed him that humanly constructed institutions, especially law and government, will always demand compliance and conformity. So any obedience to the law tends to diminish a person's freedom to follow their own conscience.

This is especially harmful to individual integrity when the law is obviously immoral. In 1846, the law said that Thoreau had to pay taxes that would go, in part, to support the U.S. war against Mexico and, in part, to support a judicial system that countenanced Southern slavery. Thoreau refused. He was taken to jail. The next day he was bailed out (though not at his request). But the story of his night in jail became the basis for his great political essay, "Civil Disobedience."

"Civil Disobedience" begins with an approving nod to the Garrisonian "no-government men": "That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have." Thoreau compares the existing bases of government, the U.S. Constitution and the Bible, to ponds on a mountainside. For those who cannot go any further up the mountain, he says, it is fine to stop there; i.e., to make these the guiding rules of their lives. But he encourages his readers to find the stream that feeds these ponds and follow them further up to their source; i.e., to seek their own direct encounter with the divine or the absolute reality from which all human laws claim to derive.

Of course each person has their own unique way to discover that source. So he ends the essay with a prophetic vision of a state that treats all people justly and allows some to "live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by," but simply fulfilling "the duties of neighbors and fellow-men." That state would be merely a stepping stone, however, preparing the way for "a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen." In this "glorious" state, there would be no need for government at all. People would fall away from the state like ripe fruit falling off of a tree. Every person would be in direct contact with absolute reality and the divine laws of nature. Rather than worrying about what the arbitrary, humanly-made law demands, each person would worry only about what is morally right, what God demands. The "glorious" state could safely give everyone full freedom to follow their individual conscience and march to their own drummer. Thus the essay ends as it begins, with a clear statement of the author's political ideal: enlightened anarchy.

The way to move society toward the "glorious" state of anarchy is to begin to live freely now. That is the only way to true justice, Thoreau implies. Justice means obedience to God’s eternal laws, not temporal human laws enforced by government. A sane man will often oppose "what are deemed ‘the most sacred laws of society,’ through obedience to yet more sacred laws.…the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet with such." He made this point especially clear in 1854, when Massachusetts courts enforced the Fugitive Slave Law and sent a runaway slave back to slavery in the South. Slavery, he argued, was permissible under the current human laws of the United States, but never under God’s laws:

In important moral and vital questions, like this, it is just as impertinent to ask whether a law is constitutional or not, as to ask whether it is profitable or not.…The question is…whether you will now, for once and at last, serve God.…by obeying that eternal and only just Constitution which He, and not any Jefferson or Adams, has written in your being.…The law will never make men free. It is men who have to make the law free.…Whoever has discerned truth has received his commission from a higher source than the chiefest judge in the world who can discern only law. He finds himself constituted judge of the judge."

Of course for Thoreau no other person can tell an individual what God's law is; each individual must discover that on their own. Justice therefore requires personal responsibility. And it leads not to uniformity or conformity, but infinite diversity. Consistent with that view, he also argues against any form of state involvement with religion. No one can make another person religious by coercion or threat of punishment. Shared religious or moral values will enhance community only if they are adopted voluntarily.

Since justice, not obedience to the state's law, is the duty that each person must fulfill, there is only one possible conclusion: "Let each inhabitant of the State dissolve his union with her, as long as she delays to do her duty." Much of "Civil Disobedience" is a lament that, in the present, so few people are courageous enough to take that step, to judge the state and its laws independently. Most people think that merely by voting once a year they fulfill their responsibility to the body politic. Yet for Thoreau this is not an act of conscience, but a way to evade the voice of conscience. The same people will accept the outcome of the election, even if it means continuing the moral horror of slavery or paying taxes to support an immoral war. The only way to be genuinely responsible, free, and human is to follow one's own conscience. That means refusing to participate in such a government, regardless of the consequences. If enough people refuse to obey a law, the government will not be able to enforce that law. Civil disobedience can "clog the machinery" of the state if enough people press against it with their whole weight. "Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine," he urged.

However, Thoreau was not primarily interested in the tactics of civil disobedience. In fact, he did not even offer a detailed, generalizable philosophy of civil disobedience. As one scholar has put it, he "was less concerned to articulate the conditions under which disobedience would be legitimate than he was to explore those conditions under which one could render oneself capable of disobedience." His whole life was a search for genuine independence, so that he could find his own way to absolute reality. And only when one is capable of civil disobedience, he concluded, can one be really free. Civil disobedience is both the route to and the result of detaching oneself from subservience to the state.

So Thoreau went to jail mainly to demonstrate his moral freedom and raise the level of his own moral being, not to change government policies or social institutions. Indeed, his night in jail was a concrete symbol of his withdrawal from the conventional political and social process. That, in turn, was a symbol of his conclusion that the system could not be changed from within. He criticized reformers who wanted to "meddle with the exposed roots of innocent institutions rather than with their own." "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root" He feared institutional reformers as agents of conformity, trying to tell other people how to live their lives. He urged social reformers to change their own selves rather than trying to change his. In this respect he was a typical man of his times, pursuing social change primarily through the reform of individual souls, not societal institutions.

In this as in all other areas, Thoreau's guiding principle was fidelity to conscience: everyone should do whatever they really want to do most sincerely. So he had to say that it was alright for reformers to try to change society, if that is their genuine calling in life, though he made it clear that it was not his calling. And he acknowledged that social improvements might come from following conscience. One man expressing his own opinion "amounted to the re-origination of many of the institutions of society." With these words, Thoreau acknowledged that, as a writer and lecturer, he was inevitably engaged in affecting society. No doubt he knew that some writers have a powerful political impact precisely because they reject conventional political language and categories.

Eventually, he admitted that he could not totally withdraw from the political and social reform process. When Massachusetts returned the runaway slave, he concluded that the state’s enforcement of slavery diminished everyone's life, including his own: "I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, minding my private affairs, and forget [the state and its government]. It has interrupted me and every man on his onward and upward path.…Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk."

But no matter how much a writer may improve society, Thoreau insisted that this should not be the goal. In fact, he thought it best to be unconscious of the good results that came from one's own behavior. "The true husbandman will cease from anxiety…and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also." (This idea may well have been drawn from his favorite reading: "In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonical philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta…in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial").

Although he had no interest in changing institutions, Thoreau was determined not to participate in bad institutions. The same reasons that led him to withdraw from society led him, even more strongly, to withdraw from the what he saw as the most evil practices of society. This is the part of his thinking that led him directly to civil disobedience, and hence into the history of the idea of nonviolence.

It is important to recognize, however, that Thoreau never actually embraced the principle of nonviolence. It is better to shed blood, he argued, than to have a bleeding conscience: "Show me a free state, and a court truly of justice, and I will fight for them, if need be." When John Brown and his men took up arms against slavery, Thoreau called their assault at Harper’s Ferry "a brave and humane deed." "I shall not be forward to think him mistaken who quickest succeeds to liberate the slaves," he explained. "I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable.…For once the Sharps rifles and the revolver were employed in a righteous cause."

It may seem ironic that, years later, nonviolent activists would make Thoreau one of their heroes. Yet it was quite logical. Once the nonviolence movement decided to move beyond the nonresistants' "foolishness of preaching" to a more active stance of resisting injustice, the movement needed a weapon that was powerful yet not violent. By developing the idea of civil disobedience, and justifying it in stunning prose, Thoreau provided that weapon.

The real irony is that Thoreau would inspire so many thousands who were fervently committed to social change, although he himself doubted the usefulness of their efforts and certainly had higher priorities on his own agenda. Yet there was a tension in his work between the self-absorbed nature mystic, with no responsibility for social change, and the politically conscious responsible citizen, committed to social change. As a writer, he wanted to use that tension wake up his neighbors and prod the whole society toward fulfilling its highest ideals.

Perhaps inadvertently, he discovered how to bridge the tension and make it a creative force for social change. Acting consistently as a mystic with no desire to change society, he refused to participate in bad system. As he and many others after him discovered, if enough people refused to participate, they would "clog the machinery" of the system. And that itself could be the most effective way to change society for the better. Even if Thoreau despaired of his neighbors, he hoped to make their descendants better citizens, able to create a better society by freeing themselves from unquestioning obedience to the system.

Notes to Chapter 4: Henry David Thoreau