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A Critical Analysis of Civil Disobedience, an Essay by Henry David Thoreau

In his Essay, “Civil Disobedience”, Henry David Thoreau argues that society functions the most efficiently when it is not ruled by an overpowering monarch, or by a strong central government, but by the people, essentially having self-reliant peoples that do not necessarily need a government, per se, yet are able to call upon it in times of crisis. Thoreau’s estimation of the goodwill, and intelligence of mankind is vastly overreaching, and his theories of government are only applicable in small cases.

Thoreau outright states that, “That government is best which governs least”, he is signifying the fact that governments which do not do such, are the superior forms. This is contradictory, in the sense that one cannot seek to want a government, yet one that governs the minimal amount. By maintaining a government that has strong enough powers to help in times of crisis, yet one that has minimal interference with the peoples, one sets up a paradox. How is it possible to have a ruling body that is strong enough to interfere when needed, yet is trusted, and expected not to interfere otherwise? In order to maintain this type of self-sustaining, non-involved form of rule, one must be in an extremely small group of people, less than 10, even. The overall level of diligence, intelligence, and self-determination within the human population is extremely low. In order to successfully employ a form of government that “is best which governs not at all”, one must have a population of peoples with similar interests and goals. In a small group of people, in which a common goal was a unifying factor, say in a time when survival was the primary goal, Thoreau’s proposed ideals would be successful. When a peoples are united, under a common cause, each one will work hard to achieve that goal, and the titular “Civil Disobedience” will not be evident.

Typically crime, or disobedience arises from complacency, or lack of needs being met; when all the people’s needs are the primary goal, in the minds of the people themselves who are working hard to achieve that goal, no one person will have the need to break the common law set out by the people’s “government”. Essentially, in the case of Thoreau’s perfect government, the intervention clause, in which the government can be strong, centrally, in the times of crisis, is not necessarily needed. When crises arise, all members of the society will seek to maintain the good standing, and good capabilities of said government. All peoples will fight to maintain their way of life, and the rallying capabilities of the central government are not needed to be harnessed, they are presently inherent. If the government is made up of a set of self-reliant peoples, who seek the same goal from the society, and will work to propagate the completion of that goal; Thoreau’s “best government”; then the strong central government that arises in times of crises is simply the natural response of the peoples who have been slighted. Humans are a reactionary peoples, and if provoked, can react in extremely territorial, and even predatory manners. When their goals are threatened, or their way of life is seemingly going to break down, the peoples lash out.

The natural reaction of humans, in times of crises, is to band together, to form strong links to fight for the continuation of what was the norm. Thoreau’s “best government”, is evident in small groups of extremely rare peoples in the world, comprised of ones who are intelligent, and do not simply “serve the state… as machines”, yet fight for a common cause, one that is evidently self-benefiting, and of the utmost importance.

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