civil disobedience in the philosophy of henry david thoreau: a critique

civil disobedience in the philosophy of henry david thoreau: a critique


Studies have always revealed that the human being is a social being. Consequently, some renowned philosophers have asserted that the existence of man outside the civil society is unacceptable and animalistic. Nevertheless, the idea of civil disobedience arose soon after the inception of civil society. Some have seen it to be a purely negative idea while some others have considered it




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After payment, text the name of the project, email address and your names to 08064502337 otherwise. Many philosophers have deliberated on this concept but this research work will be a case study of the thoughts of Henry David Thoreau, an English philosopher of the eighteenth century, who discussed the issue. It will attempt to give answers to questions like: What is the nature of man? Is the law superior to man or vice versa? What is civil disobedience? Is civil disobedience justifiable? Using the method of analysis we will attempt an examination of civil disobedience. This thesis proposes that though man is higher than the law by nature, man is yet bound by the law and must abide by it in the civil society; despite the fact that man is a free moral agent and has the right to choice of allegiance. Yet civil disobedience is sometimes expedient in adherence to the law. Hence, civil disobedience is both justifiable and necessary in some cases. We hope that the results of this research will encourage leaders to treat man as an end, not the means to an end, and to govern for the benefit of all.


  • Background of Study

It is evident that the most powerful nations of the world today are those nations with the fastest growing economies. Nations like the United States of America, Britain, France, etc, are foremost among them. This is mostly because these countries have an efficient governmental structure. The laws passed by the legislative arm of government are of great importance to the livelihood of the citizens of that nation. When a nation thrives one may assume that its progress is hinged upon the efficiency and efficacy of the governmental sector.

However, when we consider the developing Nations of the world like Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal, Egypt and other countries in Africa, we discover that one of the major factors-if not the most primary factor-responsible for economic and civil regression is the inefficiency and inefficacy of the governmental sector. Ghana today is beginning to rise from the ashes of corruption and regression because she is paying closer attention to these issues. It is important to remember that one of the major assignments of a government is to create and execute laws. Just laws necessitate a fully functional society. Unjust laws result in an unstable, chaotic and regressive society.

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Nigeria today is a case study of a regressive economic and civil society. If we examine the political sector we notice how desperate our political aspirants are to acquire positions of influence. Most of them are involved in all sorts of immoral activities such as kidnapping, assassination, bribery, etc, just to get what they want. During elections at the federal, state and local government levels the nation witnesses a lot of fraudulent acts like rigging, swapping ballot boxes and so on. If we examine the economy and the civil service we see inequality, oppression of the lower class by the higher class, exploitation of all sorts and negligence. The standard of living is relatively low because the majority have a hard time earning a living. The prices of commodities inflate and deflate at will.  The basic amenities of life, which include power supply, good roads, good water, schools, hospitals, etc, are in short supply. Even the ones that exist are inadequate.

We can go on and on about these issues but the fact is that the root causes of these anomalies are the laws made by the government and their inability to properly execute them. The existence of these anomalies often results to the response termed civil disobedience.

  • Statement of Problem

This work intends to correct the misconception that civil disobedience is a negative idea and give a fully balanced understanding of the concept. Civil disobedience is not a reckless revolt against the government; it is an appeal for justice. The root problem is how individuals can engage in civil disobedience in order to effect positive changes in our society. To proffer a solution to this problem we must first tackle the questions we are faced with in this work which include: what is the nature of man? Is the law superior to man or vice versa? What is civil disobedience? Is civil disobedience justifiable? These are the questions we would be answering as we proceed in this work.

  • Purpose of Study

The purpose of this study is to provide is a clearer understanding of the concept so as to reduce ambiguities and create room for a better appreciation of the subject. This would facilitate the proper application of the concept in our society in order to cause positive changes. It would also open the eyes of many misguided citizens to the reality and necessity of civil disobedience in the sense that bold men and women (young and old) will come to understand that they can stand up to injustice anytime and every time it raises its ugly head.

  • Scope of Study

As we mentioned earlier, this work is centred on Henry David Thoreau’s conception of civil disobedience. Thoreau is historically recorded as the first philosopher to use the term ‘civil disobedience’. We intend to fully apprehend his understanding of civil disobedience and its relation to man and the society. We may assume that philosophers who pondered the origin and organization of the state, such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Hobbes, etc, may have discussed this issue in a manner.

  • Significance of Study

There are a number of reasons why a plausible understanding of the concept of civil disobedience would be important for this study and to the society. They include:

  • Civil disobedience is closely related to man because man is a free moral agent and has choices. If man were to realize that a law is unjust and does not facilitate his best interest, he would be allowed to object to such laws; especially in our present day society where liberal democracy is the generally accepted form of government.
  • Knowing the short comings of civil disobedience and avoiding them. Every concept has its advantages and disadvantages. A good understanding of civil disobedience could be our guide on how it should be applied in the best interest of the society.
  • A good understanding of civil disobedience could go a long way in teaching the citizens of community and a nation a good lesson in bonding and standing together as a unit.
  • Through active civil disobedience the citizens of a nation could act as the conscience of the government – calling the government to order any time it derails and loses focus. Any government that is truly democratic must respond to the cries of its citizens.
    • Methodology

We employed the analytic method in this research exercise. The analytic method is aimed at “breaking a concept down into more simple parts so that its logical structure is displayed”.1 we assume that this method is most appropriate because many other philosophers and political thinkers have discussed the issue of civil disobedience to a reasonable extent. Using the analytical method we intent to simplify Thoreau’s conception in order to reveal salient truths about the concept which were hitherto obscure. We hope that it would facilitate a fuller appreciation of the subject matter. Our method of data collection is mostly library research which involves perusing recommended texts and retrieving vital information about this work. It also involves sourcing information from the World Wide Web, or the internet, which is also an important avenue for retrieving vital information.

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The presentation of this research work will consist of five chapters. Chapter one, which is the introduction, deals mainly with the background to the problem. Chapter two would chiefly be an exposition of the works of various philosophers, political thinkers and political activists who have commented on Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience; revealing their commendations and criticisms. Chapter three embodies an analytical exposition of Thoreau’s thoughts and actions on civil disobedience. Chapter four is a critique of Thoreau’s civil disobedience: trying to analytically expose its merits and demerits and to proffer possible solutions to its demerits. Chapter five, which is the final chapter, is a summary and conclusion of the work.

  • Definition of Basic Terms

The term ‘civil’ is defined by The Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, as the state of being “connected with the people who live in a country”.2 Also it defines civil disobedience as “refusal by a large group of people to obey particular laws or pay taxes, usually as a form of peaceful protest”.3 The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines civil disobedience as “the political tactic of disobeying a law deliberately, in order to bring about some change. The disobedience should ideally be public, nonviolent, and committed by activists willing to face the penalties of the law”.4 Furthermore, the British Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines civil disobedience, which is also called ‘passive resistance’, as “refusal to obey the demands or commands of a government or occupying power, without resorting to violence or active measures of opposition; its usual purpose is to force concessions from the government or occupying power”.5

civil disobedience in the philosophy of henry david thoreau: a critique


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