The influence of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” (1845-1847.) on Gandhi’s Satyagraha (1931) by George Hendrick.

civildisobedience12Thoreau’s The Duty of Civil Disobedience espouses the need to prioritize one’s conscience over the dictates of laws.  The influence of Henry Thoreau upon Gandhi.  Thoreau begins his essay by arguing that government rarely proves itself useful and that it derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because they hold the most legitimate viewpoint. He contends that people’s first obligation is to do what they believe is right and not to follow the law dictated by the majority. When a government is unjust, people should refuse to follow the law and distance themselves from the government in general. A person is not obligated to devote his life to eliminating evils from the world, but he is obligated not to participate in such evils. This includes not being a member of an unjust institution (like the government). Thoreau further argues that the United States fits his criteria for an unjust government, given its support of slavery and its practice of aggressive war.  Thoreau doubts the effectiveness of reform within the government, and he argues that voting and petitioning for change achieves little. He presents his own experiences as a model for how to relate to an unjust government: In protest of slavery, Thoreau refused to pay taxes and spent a night in jail. But, more generally, he ideologically dissociated himself from the government, “washing his hands” of it and refusing to participate in his institutions. According to Thoreau, this form of protest was preferable to advocating for reform from within government; he asserts that one cannot see government for what it is when one is working within it. Before Indian Opinion could be studied, information about Gandhi’s indebtedness to Thoreau is in the 1942 appeal “To American Friends,” he wrote, “You have given me a teacher in Thoreau who furnished me through his essay on the “Duty of Civil Disobedience’ scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa. Gandhi had written to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942, ” I have profited greatly by the writings of Thoreau and Emerson.”

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