Gandhi and Thoreau

Gandhi and Thoreau

Sir,—The doctrine of Civil Disobedience, in view of the manner in which it is being applied by Mr. Gandhi, cannot be said to be in very good favour at the present time; nevertheless, it may be worth while to recall the fact that it is not the East only that is responsible for so unsettling a maxim, but that the West must equally bear its portion of the guilt, inasmuch as Gandhi had a distinguished predecessor in Thoreau.

It was as a protest against the United States war with Mexico, and the sanction then given to negro slavery, that Thoreau, in 1845, found himself in antagonism to the State, and, refusing to pay his taxes, was arrested and thrown into prison. “Henry, why are you here?” was the question put to him by Emerson; and his characteristic answer was, “Why are you not here?” The incident ended, tamely enough, in the tax being paid by Thoreau’s relatives; but his essay on “Civil Disobedience,” written two or three years later, is a forcible statement of the conditions under which, as it seemed to the writer, a man is justified in rebellion without violence.

Possibly it has occurred to some readers of Thoreau to wonder whether Gandhi, of whose civil disobedience we have for a long time heard so much, had read that essay; and it was at the suggestion of an American friend that, presuming on a slight acquaintance with him through our practice of vegetarianism, I ventured to write and ask him the question. His answer (I quote from a letter dated October 12th, 1929) was as follows:—

“My first introduction to Thoreau’s writings was, I think, in 1907, or later, when I was in the thick of the passive resistance struggle. A friend sent me the essay on ‘Civil Disobedience.’ It left a deep impression upon me. I translated a portion for the readers of ‘Indian Opinion in South Africa,’ which I was then editing, and I made copious extracts for the English part of that paper. The essay seemed to be so convincing and truthful that I felt the need of knowing more of Thoreau, and I came across your Life of him, his ‘Walden,’ and other shorter essays, all of which I read with great pleasure and equal profit.”

So it would seem that if there is trouble in India, over the practice of Civil Disobedience, Thoreau must be credited with his share of the blame, or of the praise, according to the point of view from which the question is regarded.

Yours, &c.,

Henry S. Salt

The Nation & Athenaeum, March 1, 1930, p. 728