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What are the Major Themes in "Civil Disobedience"?

by Michael Stratford

Mohandas Gandhi loved Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" so much he built a non-violent philosophy refuting British injustice around it, but this remarkable essay advances more than just the fight for justice. Originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government," the work clarifies Thoreau's thoughts on what it means to be an individual, what a citizen's duties actually are and why governments will never rule effectively.

Theme of Harmful Government

Thoreau's first major theme is that governments do more harm than good, that "most governments ... are inexpedient," and that good intent and ideas are crushed even by democracy. He holds that a democratic union in which "the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice." Thoreau further reasons that majorities may be deemed right, but they do not gain special wisdom or powers because they are greater in number. In short, Thoreau prefers no rule but, in the absence of that possibility, asks for "at once a better government" where conscience rules above the majority.

Theme of Necessary Revolution

Thoreau expands his argument to include the citizen's duty of necessary lawbreaking, a theme he made clear when he was arrested for failure to pay taxes and spent a night in jail; that event prompted the essay itself. Thoreau takes the view that a man under the American government "cannot without disgrace be associated with it" and, since "all men recognize the right of revolution," a man finding himself at odds with the democracy realizes that "it is his duty to wash his hands of it." Far from civilly, Thoreau's second theme advocates justifiable rebellion.

Theme of Individuality

A third theme that flies arrow-like through the work, stabbing into the governmental bull's-eye at the end, is that of esteem for individuality above the state. Thoreau argues that a government made up of fellow humans must hone itself into a lesser-ruling body, "from an absolute to a limited monarchy ... to a democracy," in order to show a "true respect for the individual." He adds that the individual is a "higher and more independent power" and that the only possible worthwhile government is one that "treats him accordingly."

Thematic Freedom for All Individuals

In addition to being an essayist, Thoreau was also a strong abolitionist; it's not surprising that each of his major themes -- harmful control over others, the need for revolution, the value of the individual -- advance the abolition of the slave trade. Substitute "slavery" for "government" in most of his passages, and you'll find that he is speaking for the liberation of all individuals, whether bound by real or political chains.

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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