Thoreau’s Honest Man: A Short Reflection on “Civil Disobedience”

Last week I remarked to a friend that it saddened me to think that simple honesty, what I view as the most basic of human virtues, is now so uncommon that it is applauded as a great achievement. It seems absurd to me that we should celebrate something that should be so common among men as to be unnoticed. Henry David Thoreau had some thoughts on what makes an honest man which are still (and especially) relevant in 2016. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau Wrote:

“What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition, but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret” (129).

Thoreau was lamenting the fact that so many people in his home state of Massachusetts, and also around the nation, bemoaned both the practice of slavery and the war with Mexico, but who never truly did anything about it. He had little respect for those who recognized the need for real reform in the system, but who, for various reasons, would not actively do something to make it happen. In Thoreau’s mind, they were as bad, or perhaps worse, than the slaveholder and the war hawks. He wrote, “Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity. . .” (129). The obstacle to real reform was not the stiff-necked Southern slaveholder, but the tight-fisted Massachusett himself who opposed slavery with his mouth, but continued to support the government which sanctioned it with his commerce. This, for Thoreau, was not an honest man. Thoreau’s honest man seems to be one who would be a man who willingly relinquishes his own life if justice demanded it. “If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man,” he wrote, “I must restore it to him though I drown myself. . .This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people” (129). His is a high bar to clear.

But, how many of us could meet Thoreau’s expectation of what an honest man really is? When he asks what the “price-current of an honest man” is, he is not asking how much money it would take to get a man to do what is just. Instead, he is asking what we are willing to give up in search of real justice. He asks if we would be willing to give over more than just our wealth to achieve it–anyone can do that. He is not even necessarily asking if we would give up our life for it. That, too, is not particularly difficult when one considers it seriously. Instead, Thoreau is asking if we would be willing to give up the life to which we have become accustomed so that the oppressed man can be free. That is a much more difficult proposition for most, but to Thoreau, it is the mark of a truly honest man.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau. Edited by Lewis Hyde. North Point Press, 2002.


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