Often associated with nonviolent civil disobedience, Thoreau isn’t usually the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of violent resistance. Yet Thoreau was among the first names I came across when I began to research Muslim-Americans’ responses to the crackdown on their civil liberties following 9/11. The Egyptian-American Muslim Tarek Mehanna, who since 2012 has been incarcerated in a US Supermax for downloading and translating content deemed by the US government to constitute “material support” for al-Qaeda, cites Thoreau prolifically in his prison writings and drawings. (I have discussed Mehanna’s case here.) In his sentencing statement as well as in a series of quote-filled sketches of his prison cell, Mehanna brings Thoreau’s writing on civil disobedience into conversation with radical Muslim thinkers who argued in favour of resistance to oppression even when such resistance might lead to violence. In using Thoreau to inform his understanding of the conditions under which violence could be legitimate, Mehanna developed a strand in Thoreau’s political thought that is increasingly coming into focus in our postcolonial age, at a time when Muslim thinkers have begun to make a virtue of civil disobedience.
A close reading of Thoreau’s manifold writings on the question of violence leaves the reader with an impression of profound ambivalence. On the one hand, Thoreau meticulously avoided violence in his personal life. He reportedly quit his first teaching job because he refused to engage in corporeal punishment. On the other hand, his celebration of the abolitionist John Brown, convicted and executed in 1859 for leading a violent slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, was impassioned and seemingly without reservation. Like Emerson, who praised Brown as an “idealist” who “believed in his ideas to that extent that he existed to put them all into action,” Thoreau held up Brown to his fellow citizens for emulation in the struggle against slavery. Brown’s willingness to sacrifice his life in order to bring an end to slavery resonates with the aspect of Thoreau that appealed most to Mehanna, who saw himself as responding to the oppression of Muslims by American imperialism. “If it is deemed necessary,” Brown reflected during his trial in words that resonate with Mehanna’s sentencing statement, “that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.”
When placed in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., civil disobedience is premised on nonviolent resistance. But Thoreau understood that, under certain conditions, the protestor’s nonviolent resistance may lead to violence by the state. Hence, the ethical question of violence arises in connection with that which is being resisted as much as with the person who is resisting. Since all forms of coercion, including imprisonment, involve violence, the protestor’s awareness of the possibility of arrest is also entangled in violence. The circumstances that led to the writing of Thoreau’s work on civil disobedience—his refusal to pay a poll tax in support of the Mexican-American war that landed him briefly in jail—situate the ethical and religious foundations of violence in a framework from which it is rarely viewed.
The image of Thoreau as a supporter of violent resistance is only a partial representation of his worldview. As a steadfast practitioner of nonviolence, Thoreau refrained from condemning those who engaged in violence under circumstances or for the sake of causes that he considered just. Yet he was centrally concerned with finding ways to avoid coercion in our public and private lives. This dualistic relationship to coercion makes Thoreau at once a theorist of violence and of nonviolence, someone whose thinking simultaneously occupied both mental horizons so as to better probe their intersection.
How can we reconcile—or relate to—these two extremes in Thoreau’s approach to violence? One approach is to consider Thoreau’s politics as a derivative outcome of his vision of the transcendent self. The relation between the political and the ontological self, between being and action, between the principles inscribed onto one’s conscience and how one implements those principles in the world, cuts through Thoreau’s political thinking. Hannah Arendt, who authored her own Thoreau-inspired treatise on “Civil Disobedience” in a racially fractured America, underscores the difference between these two selves when she distinguishes between what she calls the vita activa and the vita contemplativa.in The Human Condition. Although the active and contemplative life are in many ways diametrically opposed to each other, they also assume and require each other. The ethical meaning of contemplation depends on the existence of a political realm where one’s private visions can impact the lives of others.
In her analysis of Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, Arendt describes Thoreau’s concept of conscience as “unpolitical.” Thoreau’s oblique relationship to politics may indeed help us understand how he could have advocated nonviolence while defending John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. But it is a mistake to conceive of these dual dynamics as unpolitical. Instead, we can describe the tension between private conscience and the political realm as a political theology that is conceived contingently, in relation to a specific set of circumstances that rarely rise above the conditions that generate them. Conscience, as conceived by Thoreau, is untranslatable beyond the individual in whom it resides; its precepts do not easily translate from one context, or one person, to another. Arendt identified this aporia within Thoreau’s political thought when she reasoned with regards to his concept of conscience that “it cannot be generalized; it must remain subjective.”
As Arendt points out, there is a paradox at the heart of Thoreau’s thinking about resistance. Thoreau’s concern is less with society or the state than with himself. As he argues in “Civil Disobedience”: “it is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” This formulation suggests a clear subordination of politics to the spiritual realm. In Thoreau’s political theology, the political and the theological are not equal partners; the political is subordinate to the spiritual, and the self is the arbiter of the law’s justice.
Although Thoreau’s politics is constrained in certain respects by its untranslatability—and it is this, one might argue, that leads to his conditional support for violence, and his appeal to Mehanna and to a long lineage of anticolonial resisters—it is also valuable for what might be called its intrinsic dimension, its self-assured superiority to the law. Thoreau is opposed to those who say that we should accept or reject a course of action due to its compliance with legal norms. Instead he declares of his fellow Americans: “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.” What is right is right irrespective of its outcomes. The self-assured status of the self’s intrinsic principles provides Thoreau with a guide to action.
Thoreau’s writings radiate a religion of the self that resonates with his contemporaries, Emerson and Walt Whitman. While its celebration involves a turn away from certain forms of organized religion, this new sovereign self propagates a new religion as well. American poet C.K. Williams calls it (with respect to Whitman), “a religion of the imagination.” For each of these transcendentalist thinkers, our conscience dictates the best course of action, not the state. Those who serve the state with their consciences, Thoreau recognizes, “necessarily resist it for the most part: and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.” It is in such junctures that resistance can lead to violence, even while opposing it.
Due to its subordination of the law to conscience, we can say that Thoreau’s political theology refers not primarily to social or political transformation, but first and foremost to the transformation of the self. Far from denoting a turn away from politics, Thoreau attempts to align political activity with a sacred mandate, a mandate found not in a church or in a specific set of scriptures, but within one’s self. In putting his conscience first, Thoreau is identifying his spiritual condition, his place in the world, and his relationship to the cosmos. For Thoreau, there are intrinsic goods that precede political action and even political consciousness. Our ability to recognize these goods depends on the extent to which we have been able to discern the voice of the divine within our selves.