Civil Disobedience & Thoreau | Podcasts for Activists

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been adapted from Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay on Civil Disobedience, produced in celebration of Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King was a great admirer of Thoreau’s essay, describing it as an eloquent argument for why we are obligated to non-violently disobey laws we believe are unjust…..

I heartily accept the motto that “the government is best which governs the least.” And I should like to see it acted upon more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe: “That the government is best which governs not at all”. And when humanity is prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which we will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually (and all governments are sometimes) inexpedient.

Who can argue that this American government of ours is not, in each instant, losing more and more of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living individual of conscience and imagination. This government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not build businesses. It does not educate.

The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way. For government is an expedient by which we (the governed) happily succeed in letting one another alone.

But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves anarchists, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every individual make known what kind of government would command their respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

I think that we should be men and women first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for what is right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly-enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious people is a corporation with a conscience.

Legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders serve the state chiefly with their heads; and (as they rarely make any moral distinctions), they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. Very few of them (as heroes, patriots, martyrs, and reformers in the great sense) serve the state also with their conscience, and so resist it for the most part; thus becoming their conscience’s own enemy.

A person with a genius for legislation has rarely appeared in America. Indeed, they are rare in the history of the world. There ARE eloquent politicians and public commentators, of course; but rare is the speaker who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may contain, or any heroism it may inspire.

Our legislators do not understand the comparative value that liberty, freedom, small business, and unity is to a nation. They have no genius or talent for the comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufacture, and of agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the well-grounded complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among nations—and indeed her reputation has suffered greatly for over a decade.

The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Is a democracy (such as we know it) the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing our rights?

There will never be a truly free and enlightened United States until the government comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its OWN power and authority are derived, and treats each person accordingly.

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