Journal #10 Henry David Thoreau
October 22, 2009
"I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward...A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small moveable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?" (Thoreau 1858)
"In reading Henry Thoreau's Journal, I am very sensible of the vigor of his constitution. That oaken strength which I noted whenever he walked or worked or surveyed wood lots, the same unhesitating hand with which a field-laborer accosts a piece of work which I should shun as a waste of strength, Henry shows in his literary task. He has muscle, & ventures on & performs tasks which I am forced to decline. In reading him, I find the same thoughts, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond, & illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generality. 'Tis as if I went into a gymnasium, & saw youths leap, climb, & swing with a force unapproachable, — though their feats are only continuations of my initial grapplings & jumps." (Ralph Waldo Emerson - Wikiquote)
In Thoreau's famous essay "Resistance to Civil Government", he not only refutes the practical use of the mode of the government at that time, but also condemns it as the primary source of obstruction to the overall well-being of the society and its people. He then questions the purpose of man within the context of the government, whether the man is really a man, or merely a puppet, a tool, used for the betterment of the system itself.
Emerson's description of Thoreau's iron-clad strength is clearly shown in Thoreau's writing as well. He is indeed the extension of Emerson's idea; or simply put, Thoreau's writing is Emerson's theories in live action. Emerson stresses the importance of non-conformity and establishing one as an individual, not a mere cog or bolt in existence within a machine. Although Thoreau did not go against the concept of society and being as one, he did however expresses distaste towards the blind obedience and faith towards the government. In doing so, he argues, man will be reduced to mere pawns that exist only to serve a purpose. Such mode of government therefore is, inherently, a failure.
One could not help but shudder to observe the society nowadays; when the United States, close to a hundred and sixty years from the first publication of Thoreau's essay, is still at the moment fighting a seemingly purposeless war in Iraq. A war that not many seem to understand, but at the same time a war in which many deem to have a darker agenda. While the casualties mount on and more and more soldiers are sent overseas, are they fighting a war as individuals who believe in the war, or are they "moveable forts" and "magazines"? The chilling parallels between something that is written more than a century later with the political situation now is uncanny. There may be an Emerson somewhere at the present moment, but the world needs another Thoreau to pave and lead the way concrete actions and unwavering beliefs.