act of resistance

Watch: Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience' teaches how to protest against the tyranny of elected leaders

Among those he inspired was Mahatma Gandhi.


Over 170 years ago, American writer Henry David Thoreau fiercely opposed the popular president of his time – James K Polk – through his essay Civil Disobedience. Thoreau was amongst those who were disgusted with Polk’s idea of waging war on Mexico (which America won) and of defending slavery.

He argued that people should not allow governments to overrule their consciences, but instead follow their duty of not becoming a passive agent or complicit in injustice. The idea inspired, among others, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

The video above from The School of Life shows how Thoreau also seems to have predicted the situation in present day USA. “All machines have their friction,” he had said, but when injustice is great, you should “let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”

Gandhi lived some of this idea through his satyagraha during India’s freedom struggle. The key was non-violent resistance, and though the reactions were mostly violent, it only made peace a greater ideal.

Civil Disobedience, according to Gandhi, “contained the essence of his own views of the relation of citizens to government,” along with his political philosophy against imperialism in India.

Thoreau’s ideas remain as relevant as ever, perhaps even more so for democracies where elections don’t “determine that everything that the leader does is right or that one should simply do nothing until the next election,” as the video points out.

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