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Henry David Thoreau
To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
- from Walden by Henry David Thoreau
The American writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote in the mid-19th Century and had connections with a group known as the Transcendentalists. These writers, poets and philosophers, placed an emphasis on individual self-reliance as both a natural-born right and a moral responsibility, and upon Nature as a guiding force in life rather than merely a resource to be exploited at will. Thoreau, however, was too much his own man to be confined to any particular movement. As well as anticipating, by more than a century, the Green movement of today, he was a campaigner for civil liberties and an avowed Democrat, with a healthy respect for the ability of each individual to decide for themselves how to live their life:

I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible, but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead.
A Brief Life and Times

Thoreau was born in 1817 and lived for most of his life in the New England area around Concord, Massachusetts. He studied at Harvard but remained something of an outsider there, partly because of his reserved temperament and also partly because, as the son of a small-town tradesman, he had a relatively modest background. However, he was a learned man clearly far removed from the anti-rationalist primitivism often attributed to him. There was in Thoreau a rather odd blending of New England Puritanism and non-Western influences including Taoist philosophy and Hindu mysticism. His reading of the Bhagvad Ghita, for example, an ancient Hindu text, taught him that he should abstain from meat and alcohol, and live a simple life placing the needs of the intellect above material demands.

His Puritan background would have prepared him well enough for such austerity; however, he was often deeply at odds with his own culture. He was, first and foremost, very much a freethinker with his own views on how life should be lived. He was not a great believer in the 'work ethic', for example, reasoning that such an obsessive devotion to labour represented a kind of exploitation of oneself. While he often had occasion to put into practice the discipline of hard work, he never held a 'proper' profession or career, tending instead to move from one kind of work to another as circumstances dictated, as and when he needed the revenue. It seems that he preferred to spend his time philosophising and meditating.

A casual glance at Thoreau's life would seem to reveal him as a harmless eccentric who accomplished little. However, his reputation soon began to grow after his death in 1862. He was eulogised by many people, most notably his friend and fellow Transcendentalist writer the eminent Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said of his friend, No truer American existed than Thoreau'. Emerson gave Thoreau's funeral address, observing:

He declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well... He was bred of no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the state; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.
Civil Disobedience

There is in Thoreau both a reflection and a critique of the individualism at the heart of American culture and the nation's self-image. Thoreau himself, while fiercely independent-minded, would not countenance exploitation of others or the watering down of an individual's nature in the acquisition of material wealth or worldly 'success'. He was a vocal critic of the institution of slavery, during a period when it was still widespread in many parts of America. This went to the extent of a public identification with dissident anti-slavery figures such as John Brown, and a refusal to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery. Eventually, he was seized by local police and thrown into jail, an arrangement which all in all suited him well enough. As he later observed:

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
Much to his disgruntlement, a wealthy aunt paid Thoreau's taxes for him, enabling him to walk free after spending only one night in prison. This, perhaps, spoiled somewhat the effect of his impressive words. Then again, as they say, it's the thought that counts - and there's little doubt that Thoreau had every intention of sticking it out in jail.

It was Thoreau's experience of prison that prompted him to write his famous pamphlet On Civil Disobedience. In this, he developed his argument that the best government is that which governs least - or, ideally, not at all - and that one of the duties of a responsible citizen is to challenge government whenever it would seem to be overstepping its boundaries. In spite of all this, however, Thoreau's primary aim was less to change the world than to find an honest way of living in it. From a Thoreauvian viewpoint, the individual's first responsibility is to their own conscience and personal integrity - any political consequences that follow on from the personal example that they set, are of secondary rather than primary importance. Rather than trying to eradicate the wrongs of the world, then, a person should wash his hands of them by refusing to give them support.


Thoreau, throughout his life, often abandoned society for extended sojourns with nature, generally keeping a journal of his observations and writing it up later on for publication. The most famous of his works is Walden, an account of a two-year period Thoreau spent between 1845 - 47, while he was in his late 20s, living on the edge of Walden Pond near Concord, in a small house that he built with his own hands1. Walden can be understood as an attempt to wrest the principles of individualism and self-determination away from the reactionary forces of the marketplace. For example, Thoreau was critical of the property system, which from his point of view enslaved a person as much as homelessness. He once thought of buying a farm but decided against it, electing instead to build a house of his own for a fraction of the cost and live 'free and uncommitted' in it. Ultimately, he argued, 'it makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail'.

There is virtue in an uncomplicated life, just as there can be value in poverty if a person lives honestly and in harmony with the natural world around them. Indeed, as Thoreau argued, a life of what he called 'voluntary poverty' may even, in a sense, be necessary to those of a philosophical disposition. 'None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life' he argued, but from such a 'vantage ground' - we need this kind of distance from our fellow human beings, he seems to be arguing, if we are to achieve the detachment necessary for any kind of useful perspective on life and on the chaotic comings-and-goings, the miscellaneous distractions of 'civilisation'.

Thoreau also found that, while he had numerous visitors during his stay at Walden pond, nothing was ever stolen from him2, and he never experienced the need to lock or bolt his door. His way of living, he felt, eliminated the need for dishonesty, because he only ever used what he required, and gave back to the surrounding environment at least as much as he took from it. As he argued, theft is inevitably a feature of a society in which some have more than they need, and others have less than enough. One would not wish to make Thoreau sound like a communist, however. In fact, he had a rather paradoxical relationship with his fellow human beings, advocating democratic values while at the same time largely turning his back on the complexity of human affairs and community life, in favour of nature. Thoreau, always in need of space for reflection, valued solitude as highly as he did the company of other people. As he argued, 'society is commonly too cheap'. We spend so much time gossiping to and about others, to so little avail, that we risk losing our sense of who we really are, amid this mass of useless trivia.

Thoreau's Influence

Thoreau's influence has been wide-ranging. As argued above, he was a precursor of the contemporary ecological momement's idea that we should live in harmony with nature rather than trying to dominate it. Writers such as Tolstoy and Chekhov, and the Irish poet WB Yeats, are known to have read and admired Walden. More recently, evidence of his spirit can be found in the work of the 'Beat' writers of the late 1950s and 1960s. The Beats, while they have primarily been understood as an urban phenomenon, also often show a deep vein of nature-appreciation in their writing, much of which can be traced back to Thoreau. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, for example, deals with the relationship between human beings and nature, and the desire to find some sense of lasting value in the non-human. Another example is Gary Snyder, one of the greatest American poets of the late 20th Century, who has carried the Thoreauvian nature vision through further than any other writer associated with the 'Beat' movement.

In politics, a number of prominent exponents of non-violent dissidence have been influenced by Thoreau. Gandhi, for example, was impressed by Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience, and also by Walden, and these were influences on the development of Gandhi's own particular brand of non-violent action. It is also said that the early British Labour movement, in the late 19th Century before it became part of the modern-day Labour Party, used Thoreauvian ideals in conjunction with those of fellow critics of industrialism such as William Morris and John Ruskin, as a foundation for the democratic socialism that underpinned their movement. It seems appropriate, then, that many of those who have been inspired by the man have themselves been rather unorthodox individuals. After all, as Thoreau himself once put it, rather than following others, each of us should instead try to find some way to 'invent and get a patent for himself'. A life such as Thoreau's may not appeal to everyone. Fair to say, though, that it was better than most.


Non-violent Resistance To Injustice

Gandhi found that the white men who ruled South Africa were passing a law to take away more of the Indians' rights. Already, most Indians were forbidden to own homes or businesses. The new law would force them to be finger-printed like criminals and to carry identification cards.

A huge crowd of Indians gathered in Johannesburg to decide what to do. Gandhi had called them together, but he didn't know what to tell them. He only knew it was better to die than to live with such a terrible law.

Then, while he stood before that angry crowd, a plan came to him. He remembered his hard night in the freezing railroad station at Maritzburg, when he had been thrown off the train because of the color of his skin. That night he was as angry as he had ever been. Yet he controlled his anger and he didn't fight back. Violence never makes anything better, he said to himself. That is my answer. So now he stood in front of the angry Indians and he told them his plan.

Refuse, Gandhi said. 'Refuse to obey the terrible laws and accept any punishment without violence. Don't fight back. But never give up. Never give up until we are treated fairly and equally by the law.

As Gandhi finished speaking, every man and every woman stood up. With a thousand voices, the enormous crowd spoke to Gandhi. "We refuse to obey these laws, they said. We will work together without violence, even if we are punished by death."

Gandhi called his plan "civil disobedience." He meant that the Indians would disobey the unfair laws in a sincere, calm, and respectful way. If they were hit or hurt or put in prison, they would accept it bravely without hatred or anger.

The movement of civil disobedience spread rapidly across South Africa. This was an entirely new way of fighting. Ordinary people came to Gandhi to help. Many of them were afraid, but their desire to help was stronger than their fear. They became warriors without weapons, filled with courage and determination.

Gandhi realized he needed another name for this new way of fighting against injustice. It wasn't just disobedience. It was much harder. Finally he decided to call it satyagraha, which means "holding on to truth" no matter how terribly you are treated.

"Ahimsa" was another word that was always on Gandhi's lips. It means a special kind of non-violence. Ahimsa is there when all the anger and violence inside us is gone. Our hearts are as clean as the day we were born. Only love is inside.

For eight long years the Indians struggled. Many of them lost jobs and homes. Many went to prison and many were killed. When one Indian died, two more would step forward as non-violent warriors, holding on to truth and returning love for injury.

It was this stubborn fearlessness that finally made the South African government give up. The terrible laws were taken back. It was a tremendous victory.

Gandhi, however, had no time to rest. He had been thinking more and more about India, and how his people were suffering under the British rulers there. After twenty years in South Africa, he needed to go home.

All Human Are Equal

Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1915. As he stepped onto Indian soil, he saw the familiar brown faces, the braided hair, and the flowing robes. He looked at the people sweeping the street. They were called "untouchables," and they were scorned by all other Indians. The "untouchables" did the work that everyone else refuse to do. They were never allowed to go near the other Indians.

Gandhi saw that this system was wrong. To treat some of its own people as untouchable was dividing and weakening India, This had to be changed.

Gandhi began by giving the "untouchables" a new name. He called them Harijans, which means "children of God."

He traveled across India, by foot and by train. In the train he always sat on a wooden bench in third class, beside the poorest Indians. In every town his message was the same: All of us are one. When you make someone suffer, you bring suffering on yourself. When you make others weaker, you make yourself and your nation weaker. We are one.

Although Gandhi was a very religious person, he stopped going into temples to pray until they were open to everybody.

"There is no God here", he told the crowds who gathered around him." If God was here, nobody would be kept out. God is in every one of us."

The crowds knew that Gandhi was right. Gradually, across India, temples began to open their gates to Harijans. Some people began opening their homes to them as well.

Gandhi and hundreds of his followers were living now with the poorest villagers all over India. Together they worked to improve the lives of those people, who slept and ate in tiny mud huts. it was in these villages that Gandhi learned how much the poor were suffering under the rule of the British. Many Indians were angry. Some were already fighting for freedom. But whenever they used violence against the British, the British soldiers used more violence to enforce their laws.

"We must all fight for India's freedom", Gandhi said. "But we have to be non-violent. Violence only means more violence. We have to fight with satyagraha, as Indians did in South Africa. We will fight as weaponless warriors, holding on to truth."

The Indians listened to him. Prisons began to fill with thousands of men and women who refused to co-operate with the British government. They refused to pay unfair taxes and refused to work in government jobs. They were beaten and thrown into horrible jails. Sometimes they were killed.

Finally, Gandhi himself was arrested. The British government decided to put him on trial for his disobedience.

"I do not deny that I am breaking the law " ,Gandhi said in the courtroom. "It is my duty to India and to Great Britain not to co-operate with unfair laws, and I have done so without violence. I have disobeyed your laws. Therefore, I cheerfully invite you to find me guilty."

Gandhi looked at the judge. "Either you must give me the most severe punishment for this crime", He said, or you must stop enforcing these evil laws."

Through the eyes and ears of the newspaper reporters, the world watched his trial and his return to jail. Although Gandhi spent many more years in and out of prison, he never had another trial. He spoke the truth, and the British did not want the world to hear.

Civil Disobedience

Disobedience was spreading to all parts of India. Thousands of Indians were arrested, and thousands were beaten or killed. Yet the Indians continued bravely and without violence.

One night, after the British had arrested large numbers of Indians, a crowd gathered for the evening prayer meeting at Gandhi's work camp. His camp was made up of a few huts of palm and date leaves, halfway between Dandi and the sea. That night Gandhi gave an unusually serious talk. Then there were prayers and songs. Finally, by the light of a lantern, someone read aloud the long list of those who had just been arrested. Now it was time to lie down for a few hours of sleep. Yet no one wanted to leave the camp. Everyone was worried about Gandhi, fearing another arrest.

At midnight the police officers arrived at camp, along with thirty men carrying guns. It was confusing in the darkness, and they couldn't find Gandhi.

"Where is he?" they demanded.

Gandhi had taught his followers to treat everyone with respect. One of them raised his hand and pointed to a small white bundle in an open shed. "That is Gandhi," he said. In the middle of the crowd, right beside the policemen who were walking up and down with guns, Gandhi was sleeping like a baby. He knew that God would take care of him.

the British police awakened Gandhi, shinning a light in his face. "We have come to arrest Mr. M. K. Gandhi," they said.

"I am Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi," he said politely. "I am at your service."

"Please get your things ready. We will give you the time you need."

"I am ready now," Gandhi said, pointing to a small bundle on the floor. "That is all I need."

While the police watched, Gandhi brushed his few teeth and said a short prayer. Then he walked briskly to the police car, talking cheerfully to his followers. He knew it might be years before he returned, but he was happy and at peace. He was at his strongest when things seemed most difficult. He always felt free, whether inside prison or out.

Sixty thousands satyagrahis non-violent freedom fighters - were already in prison. Gandhi joined them and became an example to all. For him, jail was not a hardship but an important mission.

"Joy lies in the fight, in the attempt, in the suffering involved, not in the victory itself," he wrote. He knew that their brave suffering would help free every man, woman, and child in India. He was so full of joy and good humor that people all over India began joking about their own fears. It became a badge of courage to get arrested. In the jails there were hundreds of happy meetings as prisoners were joined by families and friends who had just been arrested themselves. Gandhi sent the new prisoners noted of Congratulations.

For the rest of his life, Gandhi was being arrested, released, and arrested again. Living in jail did not upset his work at all. He began each morning with meditation and prayer. This gave him strength for his day. Then he wrote answers to hundreds of letters. The rest of the time he worked. He helped fellow prisoners and also the British guards, especially if they were sick. Many of his enemies became friends.

Gandhi's Visit To England

As the struggle for freedom grew in India, Britain had to send over more and more young men. They had to become prison guards. They were forced to kill unarmed Indians. Gandhi knew the British were also his brothers and sisters, no matter how terribly they treated his people.

"Don't you understand,"? Gandhi asked them." This injustice is destroying India and it is destroying you. To rule India, Britain is destroying the lives and the hopes of its young men."

Some of the British leaders were beginning to hear Gandhi's message. Many British people came to help Gandhi work for the freedom of India.

Gandhi was in jail again when the British decided to hold a conference in London to decide India's future. But how could they invite Gandhi, since he was in prison for disobeying their laws? "Gandhi is India," one advisor told them. "If you invite him, you invite India. If you do not, no matter whom else you do invite, all India will be absent." So in Yeravada Prison, Gandhi received an official invitation from His majesty the King of England.

Once more Gandhi traveled to England. He was the guest of the King, but he left the grand hotels to stay in the poorest part of London. Every day he joked and played with the children as they followed him on his morning walks through the foggy streets. The children teased him back, saying, "Hey, Gandhi, where's your pants?"

While in England, Gandhi decided to go to Lancashire, a town that was full of cloth factories. The cotton used in these factories came from India. The Indians were paid very little for the cotton and then were forced to buy the expensive British cloth.

For years in India, Gandhi had been teaching the Indians how to spin their own cotton and make their own cloth for clothes. hundreds of thousands of Indians learned to spin and stopped buying from the British.

By the time Gandhi arrived in London, the factories of Lancashire were not selling much cloth and thousands of workers had lost their jobs. A huge crowd of angry workers, men and women, came to meet Gandhi.

"Please listen to me for a few minutes", Gandhi asked them quietly," I know three million of you in England have had no work now for several months. I know that many days you only get bread and butter for dinner. In India, three hundred million people have no work for six months every year. many days they get no food at all."

As Gandhi talked, the British workers listened and understood. When he finished speaking, they began to cheer him.