Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, seen through his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance, is an engaging conversation that anyone would wish to take part into. One expounds on the other’s idea in a way that keeps the conversation moving and elevating. Sometimes, their words are even in resonant agreement. With respect to the individual as his own reference in living his life, Thoreau said: “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have the right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. ” (125).
An almost template match to Emerson’s “Good and bad are but names readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. ” (Emerson 44). What is more remarkable, however, is how much Henry David Thoreau through the way he communicated his sentiments toward the government in Civil Disobedience, personified the ideologies that Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed in his essay Self-Reliance. Summary of Lens Text (Self-Reliance): Self-Reliance focuses on the individual; it articulates that character is superior to property and is how a person should be seen.
It is what a person should develop so that he could be whole and at peace with himself. It also says that one should discover his intrinsic greatness and express it boldly and honestly even if it means going against the grain of what is socially acceptable. He is critical towards society’s demand for the kind of conformity that sacrifices the individual’s freedom to realize his true identity and stifles his growth and potential for excellence and distinction. He encourages people to be nonconformists: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (Emerson 43).
He says nonconformity will possibly make you a pariah but should not be bothered by it. For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The bystanders look askance on him in the public street or in the friend’s parlor. … but the sour face of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. (Emerson 48-49) Emerson persuades the readers to emphatically speak the truth and not let others, institutions in particular, to do it for them.
He said that: “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson 44). These principles are written centuries ago and yet are still as fresh and as current as contemporary expressions like “I’m just being real” or themes in popular songs like Gavin DeGraw’s I Don’t Want to Be.
Emerson’s piece is indeed timeless and does not diminish in value or impact over time and never fails to inspire. Application of Lens Text to the Other Work (Civil Disobedience) Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is probably best known for the lines “That government is best which governs least. That government is best which governs not at all. ” (123). It is very political, but seeing it through Self-Reliance, we see the driving force behind it is the individual and his expression of what he knows in himself is right.
Thoreau points out the way soldiers march in an ordered manner towards war they do not personally agree with as an example of how the government makes people conform at great personal expense. He calls it an “undue respect for law” (Thoreau 125). This is a particular example of Emerson’s statement that says that people who conforms to things that an individual does not believe in is a waste of time, and as such diminishes his character (Emerson 47). This statement brings light to many things today that people follow blindly.
Like sheep in cattle, people go where everybody does; fads in fashion, latest diet, who to vote for, what stand to take in issues, things that with social pressure – a person could give in even if he does not feel as strongly about it as others and consequently make him lose a piece of himself by “selling-out”. Thoreau talks about unjust laws and slavery. He goes as far as rousing people to do something about the abolishment of slavery in Massachusetts. He is brave and frank about what he knows is right. He is not shy in addressing even people in power about what he sees as unjust.
He does not have the need to be sly and go about it in a way that would flatter those in position so he could get favors. He does not put on what Emerson would call “the foolish face of praise”. He does not go on pretense to get his way; for him, it is better to be honest and offend people than pretend that everything is okay when there is obviously something wrong (Emerson 48). In Civil Disobedience, he relates his time spent in jail for not paying taxes. This shows what Emerson is saying about society’s response to nonconformists; however, Thoreau was not bothered by the incident. Putting him in a new set of walls is not punishment to him.
It is as Emerson says about what place one finds himself is irrelevant to who he is (Emerson 79). If one is at peace with himself, he will be at any place; if not, even paradise will not help him. This is seen in today’s culture of excess. Credit card debts, addiction, overeating, things done to fill up a void within the person will be avoided if a person feels complete. Escapism and materialism will not cure what is wrong with the soul. He also talks about how money has played its role in society, which is one of the avenues that allow the government to control people. The way to threaten a person is through endangering his property.
He looks down on this as juvenile as in going after someone’s dog when the owner cannot be found (Thoreau 141). Thoreau sees money and man as separate entities, while the government sees them as equivalents. Emerson regards property the same way. A person should be measured by who he is and not by what he has (Emerson 77). People with money are treated differently than those who do not have much wealth; nowadays, it is not the humanity that is recognized anymore but the bank accounts. Conclusion With these particular works, it is like looking at Civil Disobedience with the converging lens of Self-Reliance.
The wider, more general ideologies of Emerson meet to a specific and strong example of Thoreau. It is like a magnifying glass that focuses light to a pinpoint of ray so potent that it could burn. Thoreau is a fine illustration of someone who practiced what Emerson preached. In Civil Disobedience, he was not afraid to offend authorities or even spend time in jail if it means that he is following his own voice. He stood by his principles and instigated people to do the same. It is important to note, however, that what they assert is not blind rebellion but nonconforming when it is conforming that is wrong.
If there is injustice, if the person’s humanity is violated, if realizing one’s sense of self which makes him unique and valuable is what is at stake – then it is necessary to deviate. Only when a person finds what makes him who he is can he contribute to society to his fullest potential.
Works Cited Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance. ” Essays: First Series. Boston: James Munroe & Company, 1847. 37-79. Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience. ” A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-slavery and Reform Papers. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1866. 123-151.