Tag Archives: government

Society runs amok against Thoreau, it being the desperate party (Walden 121)

“One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house.”

This is Thoreau’s matter-of-fact way of describing his arrest, which prompted his famous and influential essay, “Civil Disobedience.” He writes about the issues in more depth in that piece (and I wrote about his anti-slavery activism here), so this time I’m going to focus more on an important observation that Thoreau makes about the balance of power. He continues: Continue reading


Tom Paine on guarding your enemy from oppression

225px-Thomas_Paine_rev1“An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

— Thomas Paine, Dissertations on First Principles of Government (1795)

Have you noticed that there are some lessons that we seem to have special difficulty learning? Paine articulated this idea more than two hundred years ago, and I suppose most people alive today, especially in the West, would give it at least grudging assent. But we no sooner feel wronged or threatened than we fall back on older, harsher ways of thinking. Continue reading

Curious people question authority

Does curiosity have political consequences? (Don’t worry. This isn’t going to be a partisan rant.) To put it another way, what happens when curiosity becomes what we might call ‘skilled curiosity’ — meaning, the tendency to ask questions such as “Why is that?” and “How do you know?” plus the knowledge of how to gather information, test hypotheses, weigh evidence, and detect BS. Here’s a concise explanation: Continue reading