Civil disobedience, as a form of civil position and attitude, can be viewed as a concept that presumes an individual’s right and permissible responsibility to challenge and make own decisions against the letter and spirit of the law. It reflects on situations and contexts when these state-inflicted laws contradict the natural human laws, involving some impairment of existing ideals and principles.
Notably to say, ideas of civil disobedience were present during the ancient and antique times by efforts of Socrates, Sophocles, and other great thinkers; yet the theory of civil disobedience was first introduced by Henry David Thoreau in his similarly titled essay Civil Disobedience. As many years of history divide theorists and public leaders concerning civil disobedience concept, this essay is going to consider topical theories proposed by Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr. and Sophocles in their works for the eventual purpose of finding conceptual similarities and differences behind these relevant ideas. As it was mentioned above, as a sociological theory, civil disobedience concept was publically reviewed and analyzed by efforts of an American publicist Henry David Thoreau in the XIX century, who was famous for issuing his essay called Civil Disobedience.
The central argument that Thoreau made in evaluating relationships between the people and the government was that the latter should seek for absolute justice in their decisions, which also means getting a clear consent from majority of people: “to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed” (Thoreau). Importantly to say, Thoreau had a quite pragmatic view over majority that possesses certain authority: it can be explained by his argument that the government obtains authority from the majority by not eferring to their legitimate status, but because “they are physically the strongest” (Thoreau). The second pillar that maintain potential disobedience attitude was his argumentation over justice which, in most cases, becomes superior to the government. This context stipulates the right of all human individuals to evaluate whether state laws or decisions right or wrong in relation to the human ideals and ideals of justice, of course: “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right” (Thoreau).
In other words, Thoreau appealed for people making decisions based on their personal and community perceptions of what is right, and not following the laws dictated by the state, if they are viewed irrational, inappropriate or wrong in terms of justice. Importantly, Thoreau also formulates people’s obligations, as people might face a lot of evil and wrongful things around them, but their task is to avoid taking part in such evil and insidious things as much as possible.
This is a conceptual framework that develops Thoreau’s position on disobedience – not to become a part of unjust governmental mechanism: “if the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go… ” (Thoreau). It is interesting to learn that Thoreau, based on his criteria of justice, viewed the native government of the USA as a quite unjust system, while his arguments revolved around the practices of slavery and aggressive policy that were supported by the Federal State. Martin Luther King Jr. one of the notable and natural-born leaders of his historical time, was also a proponent of civil disobedience concept, yet he expressed his thoughts about theory a century later. Importantly to say, it is crucial to take into account the historical context that surrounded King, as the context affected and influenced most of his decisions and beliefs regarding disobedience. His Letter from Birmingham Jail became an evident reflection of King’s attitude to the civil rights movement, which he believed was the natural reaction to governmental repressions and suppressions.
Disobedience was introduced as a necessary and essential response to the vividly unjust laws imposed by the state: “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself… A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. (King) Nevertheless, it is also vital to say that King’s tactics of defending own civil position excludes bringing excessive chaos through revolts or violent campaigns.
It was a sort of the middle way proposed by King to disobey the laws of clearly unjust nature via reforms and civil rights of all citizens: “For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. ” (King) Very importantly to mention, King succeeds in mentioning the fact that origins of today’s American society and ideology stemmed from the concept of civil disobedience: “In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience” (King).
However, King was also confident that civil disobedience of nonviolent status presumes personal sacrifices from the protester, which is why even the process of disobeying and breaking the unjust law results in non-violent, “civilized” position: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty” (King). At last, it is relevant to refer to ancient play Antigone by Sophocles, as this work definitely explores the concept of civil disobedience. It was written in terms of a quite religious society, where ancient civilizations emerged and arose to present only the initial forms of state control.
The central conflict of ideologies takes place when Antigone, Polyneices’ sister, was seized for committing illegal ritual of burial, and the King Creon asked her why she, being in awareness and consciousness, break the law prescribed by the state. In response, Antigone answered that laws are not absolute unity, but rather a privilege of Gods: “Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the justice who dwells with the gods below” (Sophocles) In addition to God’s absolute power, it is noted that family loyalty an also be a source or a trigger for committing civil disobedience: “So for me to meet this doom is trifling grief; but if Thad suffered my mother’s son to lie in death an unburied corpse, that would have grieved me; for this, I am not grieved. And if my present deeds are foolish in thy sight, it may be that a foolish judge arraigns my folly” (Sophocles). It is possible to see that Antigone’s acts of honoring own family outweigh the laws prescribed by the men of the government.
It can be argued that Sophocles saw a tragic conflict between a sacred law and a civil law that resulted in loyal, but soon capital punishment of people like Antigone. Overall, all three perspectives proposed by three different authors have a lot of things in common. Importantly, all three perspectives actualize aggressive actions as the most extreme form of protest, giving a clear notion that this action may rather make situation worse.
Instead, all authors call for relying on non-violent instruments of influencing governmental policies. Thoreau’s methods of protesting are quite similar to King’s philosophy of showing civil disobedience, as both consider violence as a catalyst of developing more tensions, contradictions and confrontations within the society: Instead, disobedience should be backed up by arguments, ideology and clear civil beliefs in better reforms: “a peaceable revolution” (Thoreau), or “nonviolent direct actions” (King).
In the meantime, all authors relate civil disobedience position to people’s perception of injustice and justice, as all forms of disobedience must be committed only under clear awareness of own rightness, which also presumes certain acceptance of penalty for own deed: “Not through dread of any human pride could I answer to the gods for breaking these” (Sophocles); “It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey” (Thoreau); “who willingly accepts the penalty… s in reality expressing the highest respect for law” (King). However, a few distinctions can also be found. For instance, the grounds of assessing governmental injustice, state laws or own response are different within philosophy of each author. Thoreau refers to the power of majority in evaluating civil criteria of disobedience: “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority” (Thoreau).
King, in turn, appeals to individual perception of what is right and wrong in relation to governmental action, while this individual perception may comply with similar perceptions of other repressed persons: “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture” (King), Sophocles rather refers to the absolute religious position and power of Gods, as no human laws can be above those divine prescriptions: “not such are the laws set among men by the justice who dwells with the gods below” (Sophoscles).
In conclusion, it is possible to say that this paper successfully revealed the essence of civil disobedience concept by relating to three central perspectives: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. , and Antigone by Sophocles. All authors, mainly, emphasize on necessity of following civil disobedience position when the state acts in illegal or unjust way to show opposite position and non-violent ideology. In the meantime, authors have different views regarding criteria of justice and assessing state actions; nevertheless, it can be explained by different historical epochs and contexts