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Change the World, Not Yourself, or How Arendt Called Out Thoreau

Change the World, Not Yourself, or How Arendt Called Out Thoreau

Katie Fitzpatrick

It is not often that a neighbourhood squabble is remembered as a world-historical event. In the summer of 1846, Henry David Thoreau spent a single night in jail in Concord, Massachusetts after refusing to submit his poll tax to the local constable. This minor act of defiance would later be immortalised in Thoreau’s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ (1849). There, he explains that he had been unwilling to provide material support to a federal government that perpetuated mass injustice – in particular, slavery and the Mexican-American war.


This is a fascinating exposition, but it seems to have missed a vital point: that individual acts of civil disobedience can be committed by anyone at any time, but collective expressions of dissent require some sort of an organization that’s not simply ad hoc.

With that said, I would suggest that this world of trouble is in dire need of both.


Recall the Viet Nam occupation era question: “What if they had a war and nobody showed up ?”

I participated in “war moratoriums” and other anti-occupation marches during that era, all “collective, public” actions.

I also never registered for the draft and would have been convicted of a felony (until Jimmy Carter granted amnesty in 1977) if I had been caught, a “non-collective, personal choice” action. By not “showing up” I limited my opportunity to get jobs, to travel, etc. confirming that there was personal sacrifice in non-collective action.

I have always believed that both categories of my actions furthered the progressive cause in a direction away from war and toward peace and am willing to debate Arendt’s theory.


I think both types of thinking can be useful. I agree with Thoreau that it starts with the individual, and hopefully your family. My first memory of a person standing up for strangers was when I was a little girl. My dad took me to Lake Merritt and as we walked towards it, 2 boys dropped their bikes and raced to the lake’s edge. As we walked on 2 other boys ran toward the bikes to take them , and plenty of adults were watching—but said nothing, My dad intervened by simply saying, " Boys , those are not your bikes." Because one person, my father, acted, more adults spoke up and the boys who would be bike owners then crept quickly away. So, that’s moral and fair and active, and my father’s actions gathered more support by speaking up. So what started with 1 man moved into community. Thoreau would seem to be the first Libertarian. : )

On the other hand, the weird Kentucky county clerk was being untrue to honesty and also to her religion, it seems to me that “Do unto others …” was completely forgotten, Because she based her argument on a religious idea, yet apparently one that she did not follow nor respect… her argument would be moot. I agree with the 2 above posters-----that it takes both kinds of movements. individual and group to make the world a better place. : )


I find Arendt incorrect here.

Group action is excellent when it can be arranged and achieved. It is also necessary to an awful lot. But groups of people do not move until individuals have moved.

At some point in the process, any eventful move by any group involves commitment by individuals with no palpable assurance that colleagues will have their back.

Individual action is not intrinsically an opposition to group action: it is the basis for group action.


Good words.

I too support both ‘camps’.
Having noticed some of the follies of collective action that are weakly conceptualized, confused, and doomed to failure, one cannot help but conclude that thorough examination and reflection followed by appropriate actions by individuals was lacking.
Progressive politics is held back, in my opinion, by the incessant push “to do something”, following the tradition of pragmatism that values action and denigrates contemplation. Endless wheel-spinning results, but significant system change doesn’t happen, nor come close to happening. To me, it appears that progressives have many very different ideas, and reflection and debate is crucial but still lacking coherent, synthetic development.
If progressive system change is going to happen, much personal reflection and ‘education’ is a prerequisite. Collective action based upon well contemplated targets of system change - governance, judiciary, monetary, … are necessary to create democracy for the first time and not repeat the same mistakes over and over for another few centuries.
Let’s change ourselves and the world - we can’t do one without the other.


Potato, Potahto, Tomato , Tomahto

Protest War and Injustice on your own or with a group, the argument is silly, just make your opinion known.

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“Rugged individualism” is an American shibboleth which Thoreau helped reinforce–Though the irony of history is how Thoreau’s individualistic civil disobedience gave warrant for large liberation movements in the twentieth century, certainly an unintended consequence of Thoreau’s ideology–The difference between him and Arendt in their thinking is that between a quietist and an activist–Somehow the resolution of this antinomy lies in the notion that self-transformation will result in transformation of the world–Currently the self-transformation of many American women from nonpolitical to activism is evidence of this proposition.

All righteous acts are part of the Great Change! We are One World Family, rising individually and collectively at the same time! Let “It” be, So!


Having read Arendt and Thoreau, I find Thoreau intellectually more impressive and socially more consequential.

This is excellent. I love them both and see value in both.

I also think that the contemplative critique that Arendt offers and how it diverges from Thoreau has much to do with the differences between their own personal experiences and how they maneuvered and strategized and created their paths of survival through the world.

Thoreau and his thinking came largely out of his relative isolation. This was a psychological imperative and a rich if problematic aspect of his personality… his was more an artist’s path I think, a creative process that required contemplation and study of/in isolation… his poor health, often his poverty, and his difficult commitment to his family (and the many losses there), contributed essentially to his body of work. He had no real choices but to strategize a richness in his own isolation in order to survive and contribute. Much of Transcendentalism insists on the spiritual well of riches accessed through a kind of, even zen-like, contemplative practice.

Arendt, on the other hand, comes out of the richly collaborative tradition of the European academy and Judaism… her community was able to hold her up and usher her through the devastating trials of her generation (even as they lost so many others!). She is a champion of the collaborative mode because that is what saved her… and she understands how little one individual can actually be saved through one’s own moral and ethical stands, or by him or herself, and can actually be doomed, during times when that collaborative collective turns against itself or parts of itself.

It would have been so fine to witness a conversation between these two. It is elevating to see her in this somewhat prophetic mode (she might have rejected that term… prophetic) through her engaging with him in this way even though he was unavailable in the flesh. I think a certain marriage of their viewpoints is, in the end, a revelatory and necessary path forward for us now.