Civil Disobedience


This week, changing substantially from the mid-century prose fiction of Hawthorne and Melville, we started looking at the cultural movement known as Transcendentalism. We noticed that this movement actually means many things, some of them apparently contradictory.

If we’re looking for a parallelism that might help us to readily understand the broad parameters of this movement, it may help to think of British Romanticism, an aesthetic and philosophical rejection of the rationality of the Enlightenment. Similarly, Transcendentalism reacts against the rationality underlying the philosophical movement called Harvard Intellectualism (an Enlightenment-like approach to the great intellectual questions of the day) and against the religious beliefs of Unitarianism, which—to summarise greatly—differs from other Christian churches in denying the existence of the Trinity and, in consequence, forwards a more obviously rational explanation of divinity than the essential mystical union of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Like Romanticism, Transcendentalism also recognises the supremacy of Nature, a universal force of which Man is not the centre but simply yet another interconnecting, interconnected element.

As we recalled, it’s not true that Romanticism was unconcerned with politics—at the very least, even a superficial understanding of Blake or Shelley, to cite two obvious examples, would show us that this is certainly not the case; but on balance the movement is far more concerned with forwarding a philosophical and aesthetic response to life than in interacting with the political developments of C19 Britain. In this respect in contrast to Romanticism, however, one of the principal objectives of Transcendentalism was to engage directly with the political concerns of the 1840s and 1850s in the US. And in this sense, Transcendentalism takes on a far less mystical and much, much more practical guise.

The basic political position of the Transcendentalists (still present in certain aspects of contemporary US politics, particularly in modern Republicanism) was that government should always be as small as possible; they even argued—as we see in Thoreau—that no government at all is the best possible way of allowing a genuinely independent people to live.

This position rests on the belief that a government will always act in a paternalistic way, and in doing so infantilises the citizenry. Not only this, but also that—when organised by the government for the purpose of achieving its objectives—peaceful, moral individuals can be coerced into behaving and acting in ways that are radically opposed to peaceful and moral activity.

The Transcendentalists were thinking here most particularly about slavery and the US-Mexican war (though one of the abiding legacies of this movement is the idea that the individual always has the moral responsibility to question and reject any governmental-imposed collective action that appears to be morally unacceptable: an idea that would take on enormous importance in the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War).

A direct—and controversial—consequence of this belief is that right-thinking individuals should engage in civil disobedience, rejecting the government’s authority over them and refusing to participate in its actions (this was enthusiastically followed by Mahatma Gandhi in pre-Independence India and Martin Luther King during the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s in the US).

For the Transcendentalists, civil disobedience also meant the rebuttal of the individual’s obligation to pay taxes to the state. Put simply, if you believe that your government is acting in ways that you cannot morally support, you will therefore be complicit with this immorality if you participate in supporting the government actively (in the case of Thoreau et al., for example, through taking part in the C19 expansionist adventures in the US west and south) or passively, through the payment of taxation.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (1849) is an extended argument that explains and justifies the basic political position of Transcendentalism with respect to the notion of government; it is an eloquent counter-position to the energetic construction of state that the immediately post-independent US government was engaged in, an engagement which often resulted—as we have seen in the underlying preoccupation of much C19 literature—in an uncomfortable betraying of the great, revolutionary ideals that had motivated the War of Independence.