I am rereading Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience which I do each fall and spring, to better prepare myself to teach it. This year I found myself questioning the wisdom of even bothering. It’s a hard read for my students (primarly first year college) and even harder conceptually. How does one bring it to application? Go to jail on behalf of my beliefs? But I’d have to give up my iphone . . .
Thoreau appeals to me in part because in addition to being a lovely writer on a sentence-by-sentence basis, he is also fiercely logical. He makes a good argument. He was truly a gifted writer. And it is hard for me sometimes to understand why the concepts in this essay are so hard to bring into application.
That is, why has civil disobedience enjoyed only sporadic success? Why does it remain marginalized? If, as Gandhi suggested in My Faith in Nonviolence, there is a Law of Love as non-negotiably operative as the law of gravity, why does it remain so apparently – mostly – inert?
I think the answer lies in understanding the premise of Thoreau’s call to actively resist the government.
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward.
In order to avoid a resignation of conscience two conditions are necessary: first, that one recognizes that they have a conscience and second, that they place a sufficient value on its retention and application. People will always give away what they don’t believe they have or what they have but consider invaluable.
So I question this. I know a lot of people – and often I am one of them – who talk the moral and ethical game but refuse to walk it. I am appalled by drone strikes in the Middle East, for example, but can’t really be imposed upon to do anything about that. And even the activism in which I do engage: holding signs at death penalty vigils and so forth – are relatively safe. They’re not inconsequential and they’re not laughable but they are a far cry from the radical commitment that Thoreau envisioned. One can certainly argue that nothing is changing in a fundamental way: we are no closer to peace than we were a century ago or even twenty centuries ago.
I don’t think it’s a fear of jail that stops me and others from following Thoreau’s lead (best exemplified, in my opinion, by Gandhi). I think it is a compromised relationship with one’s conscience, which is to say, a fragmented relationship with the self. What I mean by that is that we are seldom in contact with the essence of our lives: the profound love that gives rise to radical justice. I believe in that; yet I also believe that we have wandered from it, have clouded it over. We assume that others have it covered today and that we will get to it tomorrow. Or the next day.
Tara Singh, whose life of spiritual activism eventually led him to teach and practice A Course in Miracles, said that all problems of the self must be resolved in the moment. Psychological challenges cannot be solved over time or improved with study and practice. This was David Bohm’s insight as well: that thought cannot solve our problems. His ideas about creativity and dialogue presumed a capacity to engage with what unfolded in the present. He came to believe that groups of people speaking and listening to each other without censoring themselves was the only way to achieve clarity. One can’t debate the pros and cons of nuclear war, nor negotiate a middle ground suitable to all parties involved. One has to come to the utter clarity of the insanity of nuclear question: and only then can one “solve” it. In a sense, it is the insight or seeing into the insanity – the paradox – of the nuclear question that solves it.
We have to give attention, in other words, to the way that our thinking operates, and its relationship to the “problems” that we perceive in the world – and seem to call for nonviolent resistance of Thoreau and others.
Such attention, going immensely beyond what is merely verbal or intellectual, can actually bring the root of the paradox into awareness, and thus the paradox dissolves when its nullity and absurdity are clearly seen, felt, and understood (On Dialogue 73).
This is hard to do! As Bohm himself noted in his essay The Problem and the Paradox, from which the previous quote is taken, it takes a tremendous of discipline to stay with one’s awareness of a problem and see it through. The temptation is to wander mentally.
Lee Nichol has helpfully expanded on why this is so hard – and, by extension, why Bohm’s ideas (and Thoreau’s too) do not enjoy the currency one wants for them. Nichol’s quotes Bohm’s observation near the end of his life that “I think people are not doing enough work on their own, apart from the dialogue groups . . .”
Dialogue is a collaborative process. As Nichol points out,
Bohm claims that the ramifications of the ego process – both individual and collective – are at the root of human fragmentation and suffering. At the heart of his dialogue proposal was the prospect that awareness of the movement of ego, willingly engaged in by a number of people simultaneously, might quicken insights into the ego process that could take much longer if approached only on an individual basis.
Absent an awareness of the ego and its machinations, the corrective potential of dialogue is inhibited. Nichols suggests that Bohm’s comment about doing one’s own work was a recognition of the importance of
. . . a keen and sustained awareness of the movement of the ego in daily life. Working outside the dialogue setting, and bringing the fruit of that inquiry back into the group, might provide the missing element that could bring dialogue to its full potential.
If we are not doing the work, then our collective action is bound to repeat old processes. We will tweak the form, perhaps, but never the content. At the heart of our failure to follow Thoreau is simply our refusal – I think there is no better word – to do the hard work of seeing what constitutes our “self,” identifying its patterns of thought, its propensity for getting and for control. If we cannot see the ground from which we are working, then our work will inevitably drift and go astray.
So I am suggesting, then, that Thoreau’s work remains largely theoretical (though not entirely, of course) because we are not doing the individual work of seeing the ego, of understanding what we call “the self.”
Later in his essay, Thoreau says that “[t]he only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right.”
But we must be clear about what is right: and more than that, we must be confident that the behavioral expression of righteousness is free of the egoic drive to fragment perception, centralize the self, and control the perceived externals as much as possible. If this clarity is not in place at the outset, then we are not going to behave peacefully, no matter what labels we put on our actions, nor how apparently pure our intentions.
The real work, as subtle activists are discovering and advocating, remains personal. It remains interior. We are not wrong to read Thoreau but we have to ask why we can do so so casually, almost indifferently. There is no external answer to that question: it is inside, and it is high time we do the work of finding it.