As the copy I have of ‘On Walden pond’ also includes this essay, it seemed churlish to not feature it here.
Thoreau spent a night in prison during his time at Walden, because he neglected to pay a local tax. Whether he would have spent longer in prison than a single night had the tax not been paid isn’t clear, but as a local resident paid the tax, he was released.
The essay is an interesting diversion in to the rights and wrongs of civil disobedience, and is as relevant today as it was when it gave inspiration to anyone dealing with an unjust law over the intervening century and a half. Thanks to people like Gandhi, the idea of civil disobedience as a valid and legitimate form of protest is something we take very much for granted today, but for Thoreau’s compatriots it must have been quite something. Gandhi himself developed his techniques of passive resistance after reading this essay, and the comment “The Government that governs best, governs least’ is on the lips and in the heart of anyone who, like me, considers themselves to be a libertarian.
See here for an article on the essay, and here for an annotated text.
Thoreau’s issue with taxation was that he felt it was supporting the enslavement of his fellow man, through supporting a State legislature in favour of slavery. He regarded not paying the relevant tax as a means by which anyone might raise a hand against the state; indeed, we need only look back to the ‘Poll Tax’ riots in the UK and the increasing numbers of people not paying that particular local charge non principle to see the impact.
It also set off a few thoughts for me; when I was younger I was much more willing to go to the wire on issues; now I’m older I’m less willing. Thoreau was a single man, with little to lose, except his physical liberty. Indeed, I get the impression from reading his essay that he would have happily handled a longer time in prison. When you’re older, have a family and dependents, have a house, job, etc. it takes little imagination to see how a few months in jail could easily lead to loss of virtually everything you hold dear. Perhaps one of the great accomplishments of the Consumerist State is that it gets people to behave more effectively than almost any other means thought of short of execution.
The times in my life when I have been willing to kick hard against the pricks, so to say, have been the time when the most has been taken from me and I was increasingly feeling cornered with little left to lose. The balancing act between our consciences and what we’re willing to pay to be true to ourselves is what keeps us obedient slaves within our so called free society.
Reading this essay has made me think deeply about what is important and how far I am willing to go in my personal life to do what is right. And it pains me to say that at the moment my courage, like that of many of us in contemporary society, is somewhat lacking.