King vs. Thoreau
By acting civil but disobedient you are able to protest things you dont
think are fair, non-violently. Henry David Thoreau is one of the most important
literary figures of the nineteenth century. Thoreaus essay Civil Disobedience,
which was written as a speech, has been used by many great thinkers such as
Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi as a map to fight against injustice.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor that headed the Civil Rights movement.
He was a gifted speaker and a powerful writer whose philosophy was non-violent
but direct action. Dr.Kings strategy was to have sit-ins, boycotts, and marches.
Dr. Kings Letter from Birmingham Jail was based on the principles of
Thoreaus Civil Disobedience. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry David
Thoreau are exceptional persuasive writers. Even though both writers are writing
on ways to be civil but disobedient, they have opposite ways of convicing you. Dr.
King is religious, gentle and apologetic, focusing on whats good for the group;
while Thoreau is very aggressive and assertive for his own personal hate against
Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry David Thoreau have the same
ideas, but view them differently. Dr. King wants to ultimately raise awareness and
open doors for the better of a group. Thoreau wants more individual rights for
people. Dr. King is explaining his view of conscience:
I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is
unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the
conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the
very highest respect for the law (Martin Luther King, p. 521).
This quote shows Dr. Kings opinion on going to jail. King knows that he was
unjustly put into jail. He accepts going to jail even though he was put in jail
wrongly. The community then knows of the injustice and should pressure the
government. The other thing that happens is King is respecting the law by obeying
it. He is a peaceful man and wants justice, but believes in following the rules
peacefully to get the job done. Thoreau feels that conscience plays a more
Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide
right and wrong, but conscience?… Must the citizen ever for a moment, or
in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every
man a conscience, then. I think that we should be men first, and subject
afterward (Henry David Thoreau, p.581).
Thoreau is questioning why majorities make the rules. He is questioning
democracy. Hes telling us to question anything we do and why we should give
into the government if we do not agree with a rule. Why should we be individuals
with brains and have thoughts of our own if we are not allowed to think for
ourselves and do what we want? If we believe we are free, why do we have so
many rules? Thoreau believes we should be real to ourselves and live for
ourselves, not the government. King wants to change the laws because they are
morally wrong and Thoreau wants to change the law because he personally
doesnt like it.
Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King both agree injustice exists.
Thoreau thinks of injustice as friction or tension that can wear the machine down.
King thinks that injustice just exists and tension must be created with direct
action to negotiate with the machine. Thoreau explians,
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of
government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth,-
certainly that machine will wear out…, but if it is of such a nature
that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another , then, I
say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the
machine. (Henry David Thoreau, p.587).
Injustice is a cause of friction, which is brought on by the government.
The government has created something that is working against itself; if the
friction of the injustice is left alone it will continue to grind down the machine.
Once again Thoreau questions if you can wait that long and what are you
personally going to do about the injustice. Thoreau says use your life to stop the
machine. Dr. King explains, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of
destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly (King p.516). If we
allow injustice to affect any one place the government knows they can get away
with it. If people dont fight injustice the government will continue to allow it
because they know they can get away with it. We are all tied together in a mutual
destiny; we are all in the same boat, what ever affects you affects me. How can
you sit and watch injustice happen, we are all connected; what injustice happens
to me happens to you. Both Thoreau and King are trying to prove the point that
we are our brothers keeper. We all need to fight injustice to save each other.
Thoreau and King have said what role conscience plays for them and that
injustice exists but you must use your conscience to decide what to do. Now they
discuss just and unjust laws. Thoreau explains,
unjust laws exist: Shall we be content to obey them, or shall we
endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or
shall we transgress them at once. ( Henry David Thoreau, p.586)
Thoreau is acknowledging that unjust laws exist. I think he figured like
the sun rises every morning there will be unjust laws. How you deal with them if
you do not approve of them is the question. Thoreau asks, will you be happy to
just obey the law for as long as it takes to change the law by the governments
rules?Do you want immediate acton? If you follow the governments rules it will
take a very long time to appeal the unjust law in court and they still may not
change the law. Can you wait that long?Or, should you take drastic direct action
to be heard at once. Are you willing to be arrested? Can you handle the
responsibility for your actions, or are you scared. Thoreau is impleying that you
should not wine about something inless you are ready and able to take the
conciquinces. Dr. King explains how he justifies breaking some laws and
following others; the fact is there are simply two types of laws. Dr. King explains
there are, just and unjust laws,
One has not only a legal, but moral responsibility to obey just laws.
Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. A just
law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of
God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aguinas, and unjust law is a
human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that
uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human
personality is unjust. ( Dr. King p.519-520).
King is saying that just laws should be obeyed because they are the law and they
are morally right. Morally right is being or acting in accordance with established
standards of good behavior. So, if a law is legal and good you should fallow it.
People should not follow unjust laws because they are wrong; you owe it to
yourself morally. A just law is one that God would O.K; God is all loving, blind
to any indifference and will forgive. The constitution says that all men are created
equeal; so therefore if the law is not the same to everyone, it is not a just law. If
anyone is dehumanized it is an unjust law. Plain and simple, an unjust law
makes you feel bad about who or what you are . A just law should make you feel
equal and proud to be a human being. While Thoreau focuses on what you might
do about a law, Dr. King focuses on what makes a law just or unjust. Thoreau
knows there are unjust laws; I believe he thinks as long as laws exist there will
always be the possibility of being unjust laws. Thoreau says yes, unjust laws exist
but what are you going to do, just sit there or fight. Dr. King is trying to get in to
the heads of his fellow clergyman that unjust laws are morally wrong. But they
both want to get the point across that you must do something to change unjust
laws because they are wrong and can take your God given freedom away.
Even though both writers are writing on ways to be civil but disobedient, they have opposite
ways of convincing you. Their concepts are similar but their approaches are totally opposite. Dr.
Kings religious and moderate tone are totally different from Thoreaus intense hatred for
authority, mostly the government. They both want to point a finger at the government. Thoreau
believes the best government is one which governs the least. Dr. King believes the principles of
government are necessary to keep order, but need to live up to All men are created equal. The
underlying meaning that I got from reading both essays was that you should follow your heart
and your conscience against injustice and unjust laws, no matter what approach you choose to
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” – Dr. Martin Luther King
“Civil Disobedience”- by Thoreau