I used to sneak “Walden Pond” by Henry David Thoreau off the shelf in the school library during study periods. It struck me as deliciously subversive literature at the time… that a man should separate himself from his fellows and position himself as an individual, alone and apart from the crowd. The book put in my mind, that I could decide what was worthy. I didn’t need anyone else to tell me; my conscience could be my guide. Thoreau was indeed a one-off and it was a quality of mind he encouraged in others.
The book details how Thoreau went to live in a tiny cabin beside a pond in Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived on fish and vegetables he grew in his own garden. Thoreau lists what he possessed, a cup, one plate, a few odds and ends, a change of clothing. He considered that might be all he really needed, and beyond that, he could be happy within the confines of his own mind. Thoreau might be the first guy who stumbled on a great North American pastime - going to the cottage. The following is one of Thoreau’s most quotable passages from his diary while at Walden Pond.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...”
In the back of the same book, Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience was also tucked away. It planted in my mind another idea, that the government was not always right. In fact from a moral standpoint they were sometimes dead wrong but had the advantage of power and the judiciary. You put yourself in peril if you stood against them as a matter of conscience. You could wind up in jail.
There is that famous exchange between Henry David Thoreau and his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau objected to the American-Mexican War. He saw it as an unjust war against his fellow man and refused to serve. He wound up in a dark cell block with a stone for a pillow. When Emerson visited, he chastised his friend: “Thoreau, what are you doing in jail? Why are you here?”…. to which Thoreau famously answered, “Ralph, why are you NOT here?”
I guess for Thoreau, there could be no other position but protest, while Emerson didn’t see the point. The government was bigger than you and it could make your life miserable. There is a long list of protestors from history who were deprived of their civil liberties, and sometimes their lives. It begs the question why someone would engage in protest when you know you are going to lose. Is there something you gain in the process?
Wendell Berry answered that question in an essay (the title of which escapes me at the moment). He said that protest preserves a quality of the heart in the one protesting. No matter what else happens you get to stake out what is dear to you, and why. Even if the state runs ram-shod over you, you have your conscience and your soul, and your humanity. The state cannot take that away no matter how hard they try.
There are fruits to be had from adventures of conscience. In the world of literature some of the greatest writing comes from men locked away for their beliefs, in published prison literature from the likes of Apostle Paul on down to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King.
Canada has been a battleground the last few years over what may or may not be fake news. It’s hard to tell anymore. Still, there must be some room for individuals to take a position of conscience. The government should neither be silencing speech, nor putting words into our mouths. There must be faith in the realm of ideas that truth will become self evident if all ideas are aired and examined. Hence, I will not prosecute whether all the information we receive about COVID is true or not. The fact is I don’t know. But I am troubled to see people shut down when they follow their own body agency. It’s those basic inalienable rights: to freedom of movement, freedom of conscience, freedom of religious worship, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech. Such rights are sacrosanct, and not for governments to take away - unless they are in fact corrupt and fear the truth.
Canadian-Polish preacher Artur Pawlowski from Calgary, has gone to jail for refusing to close his Church, and in fact for his religious beliefs. Like the Apostle Paul observed, he was in chains but the Gospel was not. Canadian courts have been particularly hard on Pawlowski. In the latest ruling, the judge has gone so far as to compel his speech. When he communicates, he is now instructed to repudiate his own position within every missive by including the official government position. It may be a long battle. The government has broad powers to punish. Still, there is the basic matter of right and wrong. It’s not the same argument as power. You cannot in the best of worlds compel someone to go against their own conscience. And somehow, given the long history of such matters, I don’t think they will succeed.