"Sucking the Marrow", Action from Principle, American literary Canon, Because I Could not Stop for Death, Bikini Babes, Bloody Kansas, Civil Disobedience, Emily Dickinson, Essay, Facebook Activism, government acountability, Great Courses, Henry David Thoreau, integrity, Killing in the Name, letter, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Literature, Mexican American War, Philosophy, Political Apathy, Political Discourse, Politics, Poll-Tax, Rage Against the Machine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Resistance to Civil Government, Ronald Reagan, Song of Myself, Speech, The American Scholar, Thoreau arrested, Transcendentalism, Walden, Walt Whitman, Writers
No, his mind is not for rent
To any God or government
Always hopeful yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent
–Tom Sawyer, RUSH
Fight the Power!
–Fight the power, Public Enemy
I’m determined to prove in some form or capacity that the band Rage Against the Machine, was on some level influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, and that the song Killing in the Name is actually a call to abrasive Civil Disobedience. It’s a hard sell, but I think I can make it, if not in this essay then perhaps at a later date. Just to push this idea a little further, I think if you could convince Tom Morello to produce it, you might be able to do a fascinating remix of the entire collected works, with bits of Thoreau’s writings and letters dispersed throughout the songs, but after looking back over my proposition I think I’ll just have to stick with noting the man’s influence on Transcendentalism and Dr. Martin Luther King.
In my own mind Henry David Thoreau as a philosopher and social activist is not nearly praised enough, though I admit as a writer he can sometimes be unbearable. Some would argue with me about his strength in terms of prose and content, and I would completely agree with them. The problem I’ve always had with the man is that his passion is buried beneath his craft, his ethos, and his theses. It’s not that the man can’t write, he’s a damn good writer, it’s just that it took multiple readings of his work before I began to see he was a great mind of his generation.
Like many people in the United States my first encounter with Thoreau was the essay, and actual speech, Civil Disobedience. The transcendentalist exposure in American education usually boils down to Because I Could not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson, maybe The American Scholar by Emerson, a few passages from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, and then depending on the teacher the student will probably receive either a bit of Frederick Douglass or Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Granted all of these do tend exemplify the best parts of the period but each of these writers produced a significant amount of work, but semesters tend to be small and grade school is more about wrangling students than educating them sometimes. I read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in High School, forgetting it and Thoreau almost immediately holding only his tenuous bond to Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela. The idea of peaceful protest was an idea, not a fascinating philosophy by a strange man I would eventually come to respect as a writer and thinker.
In the last three months I’ve taken to listening to Great Courses Audio lectures while I drive rather than my music CDs. The reason for this is that I don’t own an iPod, but also because I find I’m less stressed or annoyed during traffic. If I’m stuck behind an eighteen wheeler while Sulfur or Pulse of the Maggots is on I tend to become aggravated rather quickly and driving feels like a waste of time. Having a PhD explain Nietzsche or Dickinson to me while I wait four cars from the light actually keeps me calm and focused on the drive. I finished No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life, and in the vacuum of space I did return briefly to my metal records, and like old friends they refreshed and nourished my spirt, but I missed the learning and so I went to Amazon and bought up the cheapest one I could get. While I was listening to Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement, the lecturer Ashton Nichols eventually brought up Civil Disobedience and its Transcendentalist ethos in a way that I had never actually observed in the speech before. I processed the lecture and sat down to read the essay again finding a new spirit and energy in Thoreau I hadn’t before.
Civil Disobedience begins with a quote by Reagan:
I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. (125).
That part about Reagan was a joke, but it should be noted that Regan took the time to actually express this sentiment in his first inaugural address. What it’s important to note in this first line is not that Thoreau is bashing the government, though that it the main focus of the speech, in fact his central goal is to reassert in the mind of his reader the idea that they possess an individual will, and this will constitutes far more than any government could possibly aspire to. If one goes on to a later passage this idea of the individual becomes more and more distinct.
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, possee comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement if the moral sense; but they put themselves on a label with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. (127).
The only thing missing from this description is a plump Marlon Brando reading The Hollow Men and Dennis Hopper giggling in the background.
Civil Disobedience is a work that has endured but in hindsight I notice that my education concerning the speech was lacking in certain nuances. For a start I was never taught that the speech came about because of Thoreau’s fierce abolition. Reading the speech there is a note that is easy to miss if one isn’t looking for it:
Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure. (125).
A war with Mexico may not seem terribly important, although given contemporary politics it may not be that far away given certain politicians seeking office, but the United States at this time was feeling more and more the growing certainty that war was on the horizon. As there was more push westward into the territories of the United States tension emerged because once enough citizens were in a territory the populace could vote on statehood, and along with statehood came the decision about whether or not to declare the new state a slave-state. This would have massive implications concerning government because already the United States Congress was becoming a battle ground, in one case quite literally, between pro-slavery and abolition senators and representatives. The state of Kansas alone became a clusterfuck between pro-slavery and abolitionist people scrambling to acquire more power in the new territory, and Thoreau, like a fair amount during his time period, saw the war as nothing more than an attempt to create another slave territory for Texas which was a new acquisition to the union only three years earlier.
The speech was in fact originally titled Resistance to Civil Government, and was spoken around the time after Thoreau had spent his two years at Walden pond. This latter fact is also significant because that period profoundly altered Thoreau, particularly in his approach to Transcendentalism as well as his own spirituality.
If the reader should observe the “Sucking the Marrow” passage from Walden they might be able to observe more than just a pretty gathering of words that girls name Crystal tattoo on their abdomen. They might in fact observe a man possessed by a kind of profound passion:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meaness to the world; or, if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. (88).
Most quotes from this passage that I find online tend to end on the phrase “lowest terms,” and this is unfortunate because it stops the reader from recognizing that passion alone isn’t important. The way other people can become inspired by such a feeling is by reading someone else’s account and trying for themselves. Bbut this passage assumes a pressing significance because the two years that Thoreau spent in the wildness permanently changed him. Finding inspiration in books like The Bhagavad Gita, the Walden Experiment was more than just a chance to escape from society and chill in the woods, the work was an effort to find his self and then, in a way, distance himself from it in order to achieve a kind of spiritual enlightenment. This background is important when looking at Civil Disobedience, because often the speech is taught simply as a blue print for political activism.
Politics is most certainly the focus of the speech, but Thoreau as a creative and political being was so much more than simple politics, and this is found in the title Transcendentalism. It is to transcend the normal being and recognize a new state. It’s not enough to simply live life as an individual, if one is to even transcend the normal state one must “suck out all the marrow of life” in order to attain directly the source of all life.
My contester may object then, how exactly does any of that philosophy possess any relevance to an essay about abolitionism? By the sounds of it Civil Disobedience is just an esoteric gas bag of a speech.
This is a fair point, but only because I haven’t gotten to the man’s demonstration of this fact. Thoreau explains in his speech the reason for the night he spent in jail:
I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light I could not help being stuck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. […] I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. (137).
I’m tempted at this point to quote the old poem “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage” but it seems too easy. Then again I’ve already bothered to type it out so I might as well use what I’ve got. This passage is where Thoreau appears the victorious hero, the little citizen who stood up to his big bad government, but alas I’m a realist more than an idealist and it’s important to note that Thoreau only spent one night in jail because his aunt supposedly bailed his ass out of jail. After hearing this I briefly imagine Thoreau shouting “thug life” before his aunt pops him upside the head, but this fact is an important point that, while it somewhat lessens the man’s political integrity, does not necessarily destroy his philosophical point.
Just a few pages before this, before even his famous quote concerning “a majority of one,” there’s a brief passage that illuminates, what I believe anyway, constitutes a real substantial argument for what Civil Disobedience is at its core. He writes:
Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essential revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides States and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine. (132).
The last two years seem to be one of near constant political upheaval (though as I write that I’m sure every political writer in history has written that sentiment at some point in their careers so that might not mean much), and because of this certain conversation between family and friends are now largely off limits. To wit, I will never discuss Black Lives Matter with friends or family, nor will I discuss Political Correctness unless I am inebriated or held under threat of torture. The reason for this conclusion is that, as Facebook and individual opinion has become increasingly political I’ve observed a desire or impulse to escalate my rhetoric, but likewise I’ve observed that I do not possess the rhetorical ability in conversation to explain my individual position on certain issues.
That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying that when friends or family share a meme that has glaring factual errors I don’t know how to respond quickly enough, or else I haven’t memorized the facts of individuals cases to eloquently explain that Barack Obama is not responsible for hurricanes made out of sharks.
Politics doesn’t often accompany the word philosophy, because philosophy is largely a dirty word. Philosophy is discussing whether or not we’re all brains in jars being fed electrical impulses, and so many people look at it as if it possesses no real world value, but this is a conflict because politics embodies philosophy in almost every level. Action from Principle is a philosophic concept, for not only does it assert that the world’s real, it argues that human beings are real and that by exercising their individual morals and ethics they possess a spirit which can alter the reality around them permanently. This can be as simple as unfollowing Grandma Josie on Facebook, or as complex as leading a civil rights campaign for African Americans.
Perhaps the best example of this is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Civil Disobedience is almost always taught in relation to King, Gandhi, and sometimes even Nelson Mandela. The reason for this is that all of these men advocated and implemented non-violent political protest in their movements, and history and time have tended to validate them for this effort (granted Gandhi had one or two questionable actions with young women and Mandela’s personal life is a bit of clusterfuck, but that doesn’t negate the ideology and results of their movement). King himself actually read Thoreau and used the idea of Civil Disobedience in his lectures, speeches, sermons, and also his actual political actions and organizations. This appreciation becomes especially clear in his essay Letter from Birmingham Jail.
While protesting in Birmingham, King was arrested and the Letter serves as his testimony, much as Civil Disobedience did, to demonstrate that being locked away did nothing to affect his resolve. From here I could point out the parallels between the details of his work and Thoreau, but truly I wanted to instead focus on King’s demonstration of Action from Principle. King addresses in his essay the obvious and violent racism that he and many African Americans have faced, and while he addresses that concern he notes that there is a larger more nuanced issue and that is concerning political apathy:
Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. (282).
Many contemporary movements suffer from what is known as “Facebook activism,” and while there are touching stories about real political change coming about because a group of people made a push of social media, in real life I find myself rather deflated by my own lack of affairs. I’m part of several sex education groups of Facebook but I rarely get around to actually reading many of the comments or essays people post, likewise I support at least two local LGBTQ Facebook groups, and while there are often invitations to parties, meetings, or events, I’ve gone to only one pride parade in the last year.
The real fact is that I’m a slave to comfort. I would much prefer to simply sit on my back porch in my rocker and reads my stacks of books before cooking dinner and then spending most of the evening writing. I’m not alone in this way, for almost every human being suffers from this impulse in some form or capacity. Once we’ve acquired our cave we like to sit in it, and as King points out the problem of individuals trying to enact change is that people don’t like to be annoyed, which is why Civil Disobedience works so terribly well. When movements disrupt the rhythms of life, they affect reality in profound ways.
And so King observes the conflict facing his own movement:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride towards freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Kulx Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternistcally feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” (286)
Nothing will erase the images of police officers sicking German shepherds on demonstrators or beating them with clubs, and while this pernicious behavior has been, and should continue to be condemned, it’s important to note the philosophical implications of telling people to “wait” for change. Beneath this suggestion is a command, because as long as people are “waiting” they’re not doing anything to change their world. Whites who, while they didn’t violently react to civil protesters, told blacks to simply “wait” until the system was better for them may not seem as bad as the big bad police force in Birmingham, but that call to wait was just as pernicious. In effect telling someone to “wait” is telling them to negate their Action from Principle, which is, ultimately, what makes them an individual and by extension a human being in the first place.
Waiting is as much an action as acting, the only difference is that change can only come about by acting.
Action from Principle is more than just a pretty combination of words (say it out loud and you’ll agree, it’s a lot like the words Grackle or Flamingo, it’s just fun to say) is the stamp of civic religion. Regardless of nationality, democracy, race, ethnicity, history, or political affiliation, when the individual acts from a position of principle it’s not just an issue of acquiring civil liberties and that’s where many readers of Thoreau’s now canonical speech tend to fall flat. Reading Civil Disobedience simply as a blue print for acquiring political rights diminishes the real beauty of the text, for while Thoreau is advocating a contemporary and timeless political structure, the man is in fact demonstrating that political activism can serve as a kind of philosophy of the self. As an individual I have to believe in my world, myself, and my integrity before I can ever perform any kind of action, and so by participating in Civil Disobedience I am not just trying to get a law passed, I am in effect transcending my individual being to engage and face the large forces of government and society that are attempting to corrupt that self.
Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience continues to impact human society not only because it provides an important lesson about enacting political change, but because it also echoes in the deep of the human soul that action is what makes men and women who and what they are.
Am I the man I want to be? If not, how many Rage Against the Machine Albums do I have to buy before I have a satisfying sense of self.
I’ve included a link to video that shows the marchers of what is known in the United States History as “Bloody Sunday.” It was a civil rights march that was stopped by Alabama police who beat marchers on television. This moment, alongside the police brutality of Birmingham, is important because the video of said brutality helped begin to change many Americans attitudes to Civil Rights because they could actually see it and be confronted by it.
I didn’t mention it in the essay but in case the reader didn’t know or was curious, a Poll-Tax is a tax usually based on Census data, a.k.a. population figures taken by the government. Thoreau didn’t pay his for six years and so he was arrested and spent the night in jail.
You might have observed that one image of the three girls in bikinis while you were reading about philosophy and political action. The internet is an odd, strange, and even dark place at times, but often my experience with it is one of constant puzzlement for the objects, images, and goods sold and advertised in such close proximity. I was searching for images of Civil Disobedience in relation to Henry David Thoreau and the image popped up.
I’ll show it again.
No real explanation for this, and as far as I can tell it’s not connected to any Thoreau porn themed websites, nevertheless I couldn’t resist. How often do you get the statement Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience and three women in Bikinis. And you thought literature was dull.
All Quotes from Civil Disobedience came from The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau edited by Lewis Hyde. All passages from Walden came from the Yale University Press edition edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer