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on October 31, 2002
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American philosopher, poet, and naturalist who moved in the same intellectual and social circles as Ralph Waldo Emerson. This Dover Thrift edition contains several important Thoreau tracts: Civil Disobedience, Slavery in Massachusetts, A Plea for Captain John Brown, Walking, and Life Without Principle. Thoreau also wrote the famous "Walden," and several other influential pieces shaped by his sense of environment and his unwavering belief in the power of the individual.
In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau discusses the role of the individual in society and government. Starting off with his famous statement, "That government is best which governs not at all," Thoreau waxes philosophic about the role of the United States government in the Mexican War and slavery. Thoreau argues that majorities in a democracy decide what the laws are because they are the strongest element in society. According to Thoreau, what is law is not necessarily right, and just because the majority decides an issue doesn't automatically make that issue palatable to a man's conscience. Individuals can, and sometimes should, oppose the majority, and they can be right even if they are in the minority. Ultimately, if laws are not reliable beacons of truth, one should appeal to one's conscience to decide what is right and wrong. However, merely deciding something is wrong is not enough if that decision is not followed by concrete action. Thoreau criticizes the voting process in this context, since anybody can vote for something. Without action following a decision, voting or supporting something is useless. This essay also contains Thoreau's account of his stay in jail for failure to pay a tax.
"A Plea for Captain John Brown" probably caused considerable controversy at the time of its writing. John Brown was the fire-breathing abolitionist who made the famous raid on Harper's Ferry in the 1850's. Brown eventually went to the gallows for his crimes while American citizens debated his actions. Most thought Brown a wacko, an extremely dangerous radical who threatened the social fabric of the country. Thoreau defends Brown in an essay both eloquent and naïve. This is really a panegyric to an unrealistic man who used questionable methods to attain his goal. When Thoreau refers to Brown as "an angel of light," it is necessary for the reader to remember Brown killed many people in cold blood.
"Walking" is the centerpiece of this collection of essays. Thoreau starts his discussion by musing on the wonders of walking in the country (sans terre, or "sauntering"), and ends up discussing nature, the movements of mankind, work, and freedom. Thoreau feels we gave up something very special when we locked ourselves in our shops and devoted our days to long hours of work. Get out! Enjoy life! Admire the trees, a sunset, and the birds! Don't give up your freedom for a wage and dull toil! These are the things Thoreau urges upon us in this essay, and he certainly has a point. This is an amazing piece of writing because it is probably more relevant today than in Thoreau's time. At least in those days vast expanses of nature still existed. Today, we must climb into our little boxes with wheels and drive for miles before we see a small forest or some mountains, while elbowing our way through all the others doing the same thing. "Walking" is a beautiful testament to a bucolic life.
I find Thoreau's writings vastly superior to anything Emerson wrote. Thoreau is more accessible, cares more about concrete issues, and seems like a nicer person. Thoreau comes across as the type of guy you could shoot the breeze with for an hour or so, whereas Emerson seems aloof and esoteric. Thoreau as a person is from an era long dead, but his words continue to resonate deeply in our souls. I think I'll go take a walk.
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on August 29, 2003
Henry David Thoreau did not just think, he acted. In order to see which luxuries of life he could live without, he lived in a secluded area for two years near Walden pond. Instead of paying a poll tax he thought unjust, he spent a night in jail. Thoreau backed his thoughts with action, and this gives validity to many of his writings.
Perhaps no work of Thoreau has been more influential than his essay "Civil Disobedience." Many world leaders, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., drew inspiration from this classic treatise on passive, nonviolent resistance. Simply put, Thoreau did not believe in allowing government to take more of his personal liberty than he, Thoreau, was willing to surrender. He also believed that, as citizens under a government, people have the moral obligation to break any law they think unjust (provided it does not injure another). This is the basic premise of "Civil Disobedience," that "I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."
All of the essays in this collection are important, but none has the tremendous power of "Civil Disobedience," one of the classics in American thought.
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on September 21, 2002
It is unfortunate that Henry David Thoreau experience little renown in his lifetime, but I am glad to see that he is now recognized as one of the leading lights of American political philosophy, as he well deserves to be. His writings, which have influenced everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Ghandi to Robert A. Heinlein to Don Henley, are the very essence of the strength of invididualism and freedom of the spirit. Thoreau was vehemently against slavery (his two essays on the subject in this volume are so passionate that they may move you to tears), and the title essay is, of course, a classic in itself. Distilling the virtues of conscience over the mere created laws of man, Thoreau makes a very good case here for self-government, and I am surprised he is not more frequently cited by the Liberterian movement. His remembrance of when he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax - in which he says he felt that the prison walls did not confine him, that he felt more free than ever inside them, that he came to feel sorry for the state and even pity them for resorting to such measures, and that he, in fact, felt like he was the only citizen who did pay his poll tax - I find truly inspiring. They just don't make men like that, anymore. While many of us may find it hard to be so idealistic about things, we are reminded, in reading this, of a time when people could - and did - truly die for what they believed in. One wonders what Thoreau would think of present-day America. Life Without Principle is another eye-opening piece, in which Thoreau condemns the American social system and job ladder. Walking is a classic that is still cited by conservationists everywhere, and that helped in a big way in the U.S.'s national parks movement. Seminal American writing in the tradition of Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other great American thinkers.
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When we are young and vibrant we feel that Henry David Thoreau alone carries the banner of 'individuality' for all of us and that the public should simply stay out of our way while we, as unique individuals, charge through and push aside the unmotivated masses. We will become what we choose to be and not what was preached or passed down to us. And by doing so, we will leave our unique and positive mark for all of humanity to follow.

As one matures in both years and wisdom, however, while the words of individuality still ring true, we find another message that was there all along, yet hidden from our then self-absorbed eyes. That word is libertarianism. Thoreau equally claims that no one, including the elected officialdom of government, should put any barriers to our desires, no matter how narcissistic and destructive they may be. Selfishness and neoconservatism are but a mere step from complete godliness.

Obviously, the path to a successful and meaningful life lies somewhere between these juxtapositions. Yes, be yourself and all you were meant to be but do not do so when it demeans or interferes with the lives of other worthwhile beings who are also on the road to their self-fulfillment. Your desires, in conjunction with others, can both be fulfilled together. I wonder if Thoreau ever came to realize that we are not only responsible for the progress of own self worth but for the personal fulfillment of those around us as well?
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on October 29, 2001
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), in his essays, expressed a point of view which continues to be relevant not only in the United States, but in any society that values civil liberties and democratic ideals. "Civil Disobedience and Other Essays," from Dover Publications, brings together the title essay along with four other pieces: "Slavery in Massachusetts," "A Plea for Captain John Brown," "Walking," and "Life Without Principle."
Reading Thoreau's work, I was struck by how much some of his ideals are echoed by a later United States activist: the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thoreau was passionately opposed to slavery. He also cast a critical eye on the concept of majority rule, and was concerned about the place of a minority within an unjust system of laws. He has some noteworthy thoughts on the U.S. Constitution.
Thoreau is not just a "theoretical" radical; in the title essay he reflects on a night he spent in jail as a result of his civil disobedience (that event inspired the excellent play "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail," by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee). Thoreau's voice is still strong after all these years, and deserves to be heard by contemporary audiences. One final note: In his defense of the militant abolitionist John Brown, Thoreau describes Brown as "the most American of us all." I think that such a description also fits Thoreau himself.
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on June 6, 1999
Thoreau eloquently yet clearly reveals a morality and integrity sorely lacking in our modern world. It was a joy to read. I highly recommend these beautiful philosophical musings of a man whose example is extraordinary.
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on April 23, 2001
This book is not only great unto itself, but it is a phenominal counterpoint to Socrates' Crito. Socrates speaks about our supposed contractual duty to obey the law, no matter what the laws say; Thoreau stands for no such thing. We would never buy into anything that aimed to harm us, and this book explores such a notion.
On its own, this book is fantastic. Coupled with the Crito, you get an interesting look at whether or not civil disobedience is acceptable.
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on December 22, 1998
If ever a document came close to matching the Gospels in detailing a way to live morally, it is Civil Disobedience. In a brief, clear, and concise essay Thoreau proffers a challenge to all men, "not to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right." In all my life, no words so simply and yet so profoundly has affected my view of our country and our world.
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on December 17, 1999
"Civil Disobedience" is one of the most profoundly affecting pieces of literature I have ever read. Thoreau seemed to put so eloquently into words what I already felt that I felt like shaking my metaphorical fist at the specter of authority. Every American should read this book.
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on March 18, 2014
I personally got very little out of this book. It is just not an easy read. Understanding it may require quite a bit of background study.
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