An Israeli soldier stands beside a tank in Avivim near the Israel-Lebanon border May 23, 2010. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
This article is adapted from Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
It is among the most famous acts of resistance in history. In July 1846, Henry David Thoreau left his shingled cottage near Walden Pond to visit a cobbler’s shop in Concord, Massachusetts. On the way he bumped into Sam Staples, the local constable, who was responsible for collecting the poll tax assessed on all male adults in the town between the ages of 20 and 70. Thoreau, then 29, hadn’t paid the tax for years and, owing to certain personal convictions, wasn’t about to. “Henry, if you don’t pay, I shall have to lock you up pretty soon,” said Staples. “As well now as any time,” replied Thoreau.
Thoreau was taken to the county jail and released the next morning, after someone, probably his Aunt Maria, heard what had happened and dropped off money on his behalf, for which some people might have been grateful. Not Thoreau, who, a year and a half later, appeared at the Concord Lyceum to deliver a lecture explaining why, had it been up to him, he might have settled in for a longer stay. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” he proclaimed. Refusing to pay taxes in a country that tolerated slavery and had recently launched an unjust war on Mexico was not a crime but a moral obligation, Thoreau insisted. Published in 1849 under the title “Resistance to Civil Government,” his fiery speech attracted little notice at first. It would later appear under a more familiar title, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” and become one of the best-known ruminations on the subject of dissent ever written.
Thoreau’s essay has often been read as a stirring ode to nonconformists who put conscience above the letter of the law and the will of the majority. Yet for all his militancy, the author of “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” did not call on his fellow citizens to come together to end slavery. Rather, he sought to avoid its taint. “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong,” wrote Thoreau. “He may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”
Many decades after Thoreau drew this distinction, Hannah Arendt cited it to highlight a distinction of her own. Thoreau’s words underscored the difference between the “good citizen,” who was concerned with improving conditions in society, and the “good man,” who was preoccupied with maintaining his own moral purity. While good citizens waded into the messy world of politics, where absolute justice invariably proved elusive, good men saw politics as an expression of personal morality and little else. They could afford to be purists, Arendt argued, since the only test that mattered was whether they’d been true to their own subjective sense of right and wrong. Thoreau did not pretend otherwise. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” he wrote. “I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society.”
It is a bracingly uncompromising worldview. But if this is all that saying no entails, what, beyond salving one’s own conscience, comes of it? If one person’s subjective values can be invoked to break the law and resist government, why can’t another, radically different set of convictions be invoked as well? How do we judge someone who claims to act according to what he thinks is right? What if we don’t agree with his principles? What is to stop the principled defiance of a “good man” from being emulated by a dangerous fanatic?