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Thoreau’s Example

June 2024
1min read


Frederic D. Schwarz replies: Supercilious I may be, but I’ve got nothing on Thoreau himself. For example: “I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred.” Here and in all his writings, Thoreau displays contempt for the common people—farmers, tradesmen, Irish immigrants, anyone who has better things to do than grow beans and contemplate the Bhagavad-Gita.

Thoreau had no use for democracy. The followers of Gandhi and King, by contrast, wanted nothing more than to participate in democracy. Thoreau’s chief interest was easing his own conscience (“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; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it”). But the Massachusetts boys who fought and died to preserve the Union and eliminate slavery did not wash their hands of the Southern states; instead they gave their lives to hold onto them. Nor, a century later, did the fighters for civil rights rely on the power of a moral example to overthrow oppression. Instead they used courts, legislatures, law-enforcement officials, and executives—all organs of Thoreau’s despised state. If Gandhi and King drew inspiration from Thoreau, so much the better, but it’s a good thing for us all that they didn’t take him literally.

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