By John Scales Avery
The duty of individuals living under an unjust government.
There are many governments today that can be described unjust, and some that even deserve to be called fascist.
What is the duty of the individual citizen, living under such a government?
What was the duty of a German, living under Hitler?
The thoughts of Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King can help us to answer this question. The Nuremberg Principles can also help us to answer it.
Henry David Thoreau and Civil Disobedience
We usually think of Thoreau (1817-1862) as a pioneer of ecology and harmony with nature, but he was also a pioneer of non-violent civil disobedience.
Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax because of his opposition to the Mexican War and to the institution of slavery. Because of his refusal to pay the tax (which was in fact a very small amount) he spent a night in prison.
To Thoreau’s irritation, his family paid the poll tax for him and he was released. He then wrote down his ideas on the subject in an essay entitled “The Duty of Civil Disobedience”, where he maintains that each person has a duty to follow his own individual conscience even when it conflicts with the orders of his government.
“Under a government that which imprisons any unjustly”, Thoreau wrote, “the true place for a just man is in prison.”
Thoreau’s “The Duty of Civil Disobedience” influenced Martin Luther King, and it anticipated the Nuremberg Principles.
Tolstoy: The Kingdom of God is Within You
As an old man, Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) had achieved all of the goals that humans normally set for themselves.