Thoreau: Anarchist, Minarchist, or Individualist?

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Was Thoreau an anarchist, a minarchist, or merely an aloof individualist to whom the State was an at-hand example to be used in illustrating further philosophical points? I'd like to re-examine Thoreau thusly.

Perhaps the first place to turn one's attention in this regard is 'Resistance to Civil Government' ' or, 'Civil Disobedience' if we defer to Thoreau's later title. At the outset, we are unequivocally presented with the basic framework of his philosophy: 'I heartily accept the motto, -- 'That government is best which governs least;' and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe, -- 'That government is best which governs not at all;' and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.'

This paradoxical statement, however, is such that one might well argue that Thoreau was being deliberately arch or evasive. Governance, after all, cannot be said to exist if it does no governing. Even if the bureaucratic apparatus of a State is in place, its very inactivity renders it a nullity, and ultimately leads to its dissolution. It would be hard to believe that a man of Thoreau's intellectual level would miss this critical point.

Further on, with seeming wry cynicism, he elicits this observation about government and its relationship to society in general: 'But it is not the less necessary for this [sic]; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.' It would appear that Thoreau had seen through the State's veneer with hard-headed acumen but for this contradictory paragraph appearing immediately after the one from which the previous sentence is taken: 'But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.'

Thoreau is bouncing back and forth between two almost polar opposites throughout the entirety of the essay, at once denouncing the very underpinnings of the State, while in turn backing fastidiously away from being branded a 'no-government' man.

Of course, this was 19th Century parlance for 'anarchist,' and it may well have been that Thoreau did not wish to bear whatever stigma may have been associated with such terms. Nevertheless, it does not appear that those around him were unaware of his fundamental sentiments. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 'Thoreau' ' his recollections of Henry David read at his funeral in May of 1862 ' had this to say of the man: 'But, idealist as he was, standing for abolition of slavery, abolition of tariffs, almost for abolition of government, it is needless to say he found himself not only unrepresented in actual politics, but almost equally opposed to every class of reformers.'

One 'class of reformers' residing in Massachusetts at the time to whom Thoreau may not have been so averse in spite of his reticence to be numbered among them were indeed the 'no-government men' ' Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, Josiah Warren, William B. Greene, and others. It is odd to note that, in spite of having obviously been aware of their presence, Thoreau made no known attempt to communicate with any of these individuals. Conversely, it would seem that, at the very least, Benjamin Tucker was aware of Thoreau's existence. His August 1875 refusal to pay poll tax in Princeton was in deliberate imitation of Thoreau's prior and much celebrated act of defiance. Like Thoreau, Tucker was sprung from jail in short order by a friend who paid the tax on his behalf (though in Thoreau's case this was likely his aunt). The anger both men reputedly exhibited in the wake of such an outcome was considerable, and to both would have been, no doubt, mutually recognizable.

But Thoreau's indignance could perhaps assume darker, more radical hues at times than Tucker's. His uncompromising support for John Brown's armed raid at Harper's Ferry ' a prelude to the War Between the States ' is perhaps not surprising when we consider the following sentiment: 'All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.' And then:

'But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact, that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.'

Of course, here Thoreau is addressing several issues of his day, all intertwined with one another either as a result of, or having been sanctioned by, State action; namely, the practice of slavery, the war with Mexico, and the general suppression of domestic liberty across the various stratas of society. Obviously he was not, contemplatively speaking, at least, averse to employing violence when presented with such situations.

But if this was so, it would appear that it was not untempered by a spirit of self-sacrifice. In remarking upon William Paley's counsel in 'Duty of Submission to Civil Government' (most assuredly the grain of sand which had found it's way into Thoreau's particular oyster), he had this to say: 'But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient.'

Indeed, the moral precept of utter self-responsibility looms large in Thoreau's personal philosophy. We see it in his attitude towards voting:

'All voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.'

And as for those who would argue that a democratic process is the agent by which the ills of government might be countered, Thoreau has this to say:

'As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not every thing to do, but something; and because he cannot do every thing, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the governor or the legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and, if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then? But in this case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil.'

That which further beguiles our efforts to definitively categorize Thoreau's philosophy are those passages in which he praises both peaceable and violent revolt in the same breath, as witness the following:

'If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, 'But what shall I do?' my answer is, 'If you really wish to do any thing, resign your office.' When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of bloodshed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man's real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.'

To Thoreau, the distinctions between physical conflict and psychological anguish were evidently null. But then, what are we to think when we hear this uttered from the same man? 'I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them.'

From revolutionary, to peaceful dissenter, to pacifistic complier all in the same essay.

It is no large wonder that scholars have debated Thoreau's standing for decades without definitive resolution.

With similar ambiguity does the closing paragraph of 'Resistance to Civil Government' resonate: 'The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to, -- for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well, -- is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person or property but what I concede to it. 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 the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself by imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.'

Thoreau wants his cake and to eat it too. He is ever reticent to follow his innate libertarianism to its penultimate conclusion, that is to say, to become, indeed, a 'no-government man.' He appears to be seeking an abstraction, an UberState, as it were, which can both perform governmental functions and yet maintain total laissez-faire non-interference with society. That he seems to never have resolved this paradox is a wonder upon which we can only speculate. It is entirely possible that Thoreau was being deliberately coy. By 1848, the year he penned 'Resistance to Civil Government,' the modest reputation as a writer he had achieved publishing in The Dial, a local trascendentalist newsletter, was defunct. He had also failed to make anything of himself as a journalist during his time in New York . Further, there was the three-hundred-acre Concord woods fire which he had irresponsibly caused four years earlier to contend with ' an action for which he remained unforgiven by many of the local populace for the remainder of his life. It is not entirely beyond the pale to suggest that perhaps evincing a full-bodied anarchist radicalism was a stigma which Thoreau felt unprepared to bear. For all of his self-avowed love of solitude, further ostracization may not have appeared at all attractive to him.

But if so, why write 'Resistance to Civil Government' to begin with? Indeed, he is very candid therein by admitting, 'I know that most men think differently from myself.' If we accept the preceding theory, the answer is far from clear.

Deepening the enigma further still, is Thoreau's disposition towards taxation: 'I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and, as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countrymen now. It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with, -- the dollar is innocent, -- but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.'

It is evident that Thoreau's philosophy, however we may attempt to define it, was not such as to denounce all taxation as socialistic thievery, nor to forego 'fellow-countrymen' in favor of sovereign human beings. Yet, he has expressed an uncompromised desire to 'stand aloof' from the State, and has declared--however quietly--war against it.

The school of anarchist thought in Thoreau's day was divided into two essential camps: the Marxist anarchism of Mikhail Bakunin sand Peter Kropotkin, and the Individualist Anarchism of Lysander Spooner and the other aforementioned 'no-government' men of Massachusetts. If Thoreau could be said to have planted even one of his feet in either, it would of course be the latter. But Thoreau exists, ultimately, in a nebulous realm. He seems unable to contemplate life entirely without the State; he merely wishes to extricate himself from its machinations, and is inclined to beseech us to do the same. He speaks nowhere of a smaller government, or even seriously entertains the idea of one constrained by a constitution or some such. The scope of the State seems ultimately of no moment to Thoreau; it is what it is. One either submits to it entirely, or seeks to get out from under its yoke. In this regard, then, he is perhaps best defined as one of the most intense individualists in history. Neither statist nor anarchist entire, he created his own non-linear life philosophy free from all dogma or egalitarian ideology. That which the moment demanded in pursuit of personal sovereignty was his aim and watchword. It is for this very reason, perhaps, that he will ever remain such a wondrous icon.

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Alex R. Knight III's picture
Columns on STR: 113

Alex R. Knight III is the author of numerous horror, science-fiction, and fantasy tales, including Tales from Dark 7.  He has also written and published poetry; non-fiction articles, reviews, and essays for a variety of venues; and is former Communications Director for the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire.  In 1998, he was awarded Activist of the Year for that organization.  He now lives and writes in rural southern Vermont where he holds a B.A. in Literature & Writing from Union Institute & University, and looks forward to living in a governmentless society of liberty.