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Civil Disobedience

The History Of The Concept

The concept of civil disobedience has evolved over a long period of time. Ideas drawn from different periods of history and from different cultures have contributed to its evolution. The idea that there is a law that transcends the laws of the state is found in Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.E.), in some of the classical Greek tragedies, and in the Indian concept of dharma (duty). In these traditions, should the higher law and the laws of the state come into conflict, the individual had the obligation to disobey the laws of the state. In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) defended the natural-law view that unjust laws did not bind the citizen in conscience. John Locke (1632–1704) taught that the government derived its authority from the people, that one of the purposes of the government was the protection of the natural rights of the people, and that the people had the right to alter the government should it fail to discharge its fundamental duties.


The writer who made the theory famous, put it into practice, and gave the practice the name "civil disobedience" was Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). His ideas on the subject are found in the celebrated lecture that he delivered in 1848 to the Concord Lyceum in Massachusetts, under the title "On the Relation of the Individual to the State." It was first published in printed form in 1849 under a different title, "Resistance to Civil Government," in Aesthetic Papers, a volume edited by Elizabeth Peabody. It first appeared under the title "Civil Disobedience" only in 1866, four years after Thoreau's death, in a volume of his writings entitled A Yankee in Canada with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers.

Two principles underlie Thoreau's conception of civil disobedience. The first is that the authority of the government depends on the consent of the governed. The second is that justice is superior to the laws enacted by the government, and the individual has the right to judge whether a given law reflects or flouts justice. In the latter case the individual has the duty to disobey the law and accept the consequences of the disobedience nonviolently. In Thoreau's case, he judged that the laws upholding slavery and supporting the Mexican War (1846–1848) were unjust. He chose to spend a night in jail rather than submit to the unjust laws.


Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) broadened the scope of civil disobedience and internationalized its practice. Gandhian civil disobedience originated in 1906, in South Africa, as part of his campaign for the defense of the civil rights of the disenfranchised Indian immigrants. On his return to India in 1915, he made civil disobedience the primary moral force behind his leadership of the Indian nationalist movement.

His idea of civil disobedience drew from a wide variety of intellectual sources. Plato's Apology of Socrates was one of them. In 1908 he published a paraphrase of it under the title The Story of a Soldier of Truth. The Sermon on the Mount had a profound influence on him, especially as interpreted by Leo Tolstoy in his The Kingdom of God Is within You (1893). Patanjali's Yogasutra and the Bhagavad Gita also guided the development of his thoughts on nonviolence as it applied to civil disobedience.

When in 1906 he started the civil rights campaign in South Africa, Gandhi did not know what term to use to describe it. (He read Thoreau only in 1907). Some called the new campaign passive resistance, in comparison with the British Passive Resistance Movement against the Education Act of 1902. But he was unhappy with the comparison for two reasons. The first was that British passive resistance did not forbid violence as a means of achieving its goal; the second was that it did not require that its practitioners be free from hatred of their political opponents.

Gandhi called his practice "satyagraha," a Gujarati word meaning "firmness in adhering to truth." Satyagraha, free of the defects of passive resistance, introduced six elements into the theory and practice of civil disobedience:

  • First, its moral basis was grounded in truth, a basis much deeper than that provided by the theory of consent. To be binding, laws had to be truthful. All untruthful laws had to be resisted, though civilly—that is, by truthful means.
  • Second, civil disobedience presupposed the obligation to obey the state: only those had the right to practice civil disobedience who knew "how to offer voluntary and deliberate obedience" to the laws of the state.
  • Third, commitment to nonviolence was an essential component of civil disobedience. The commitment in question could be either moral or tactical, depending on the moral aptitude of the practitioner.
  • Fourth, the practice of civil disobedience required a minimum degree of moral fitness, to be acquired by the exercise of such virtues as truthfulness, nonviolence, temperance, courage, fearlessness, and freedom from greed.
  • Fifth, a practitioner of civil disobedience had to accept the punishment consequent to the disobedience voluntarily, and without complaint.
  • Finally, engagement in civil disobedience had to be complemented by engagement in organized social work.

For Gandhi, it was not enough to seek to improve the state; it was equally necessary to seek to improve civil society. To assist Indians to combine civil disobedience with voluntary social work, he wrote Constructive Programme (1941, revised in 1945). It identified the major social evils prevalent in Indian society, such as religious intolerance, caste violence, and discrimination against the untouchables, minorities, and women. The removal of these social evils by voluntary work was as important as the removal of unjust laws by civil disobedience. According to Gandhi, "civil disobedience without the constructive program will be like a paralyzed hand attempting to lift a spoon."

Martin Luther King Jr.

The third major figure who contributed greatly to the development of the practice of civil disobedience was Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). He made civil disobedience the distinguishing feature of the civil rights movement in the United States. In this he was deeply influenced by Gandhi's methods. But he was also influenced by Christian humanism, as is evident in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963). The letter has been called the most widely read and discussed manifesto on civil disobedience since Thoreau's essay. Addressed to his fellow African-American clergymen, it explained why immediate, direct, nonviolent action was a duty incumbent upon every American who wished to rid the nation of segregationist laws. Here King faced a dilemma. On the one hand, the law had by 1954 declared segregation to be unconstitutional, yet on the other it also tolerated segregationist practices in certain states. How then could one advocate breaking some laws while obeying others?

One could do both, he contended, because one had the right to judge each law on its own merit. And the criterion he recommended for making such judgement was drawn from Christian humanism. According to St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), an unjust law was no law at all. And according to Aquinas, an unjust law was a human law that was not rooted in eternal and natural law. Just laws uplifted human beings, while unjust ones degraded them. The segregationist laws were unjust and dehumanizing and therefore had to be disobeyed. King contributed greatly to making civil disobedience a respected tradition of American politics. In this he marks an advance on Thoreau, who seemed to appeal, hitherto, mostly to New England intellectuals. King actualized the potential that was in Thoreau.

In the late twentieth century, civil disobedience became a tactic adopted by various protest movements worldwide. The anti-nuclear weapons movement, the green movement, and the movement against globalization have adopted it with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterCivil Disobedience - The History Of The Concept, Philosophic Status Today, Disputed Questions, Bibliography