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Transcendental Legacy: Political Reform

Images for reform: "means and ends, seed and fruit" and civil disobedience Antonio Casado da Rocha

Antonio Casado da Rocha

We are all now familiar with Thoreau's "great faith in a seed." What is normally overlooked is that the celebrated quote from "The Succession of Forest Trees"—"convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders"—continues like this: "I shall even believe that the millennium is at hand, and that the reign of justice is about to commence, when the Patent Office, or Government, begins to distribute, and the people to plant, the seeds of these things." FN

Thus the image of the seed is memorably linked to the ideal result of justice for all, and—now that the millennium is really at hand—to the activities of 20th century champions of social justice such as Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), or Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). Thoreau's influence on these two reformers is well known and often invoked. However, the story of this influence is complex and can be expanded to include other sources, such as the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). The aim of this note is to shed some light on that story, by focusing on a particular theme: the old controversy on whether the means are justified by the end.

To begin with, let us consider two examples. As anybody knows, Gandhi rejects violence as a tool for social change. His rationale is that means and ends are intrinsically connected. "If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself," he is reported to have said. FN And ever since the beginning of his career as a writer, Thoreau also emphasized that the ends, the results, do not justify every means. As far as reform is concerned, proper means—what he called "good beginnings"—are as necessary as worthy ends. As he wrote in "Reform and the reformers": "I cannot bear to be told to wait for good results, I pine as much for good beginnings. We never come to final results, and it is too late to start from perennial beginnings." FN The latter sentence encapsulates the gist of Thoreau's attitude towards the means v. ends problem. On the one hand, worthy ends are hardly attainable in the course of a lifetime, so they do not justify every means: life is too dear. After all, "a man cannot do every thing", so "it is not necessary that he should do something wrong." FN On the other hand, we do need to come to some results, so we must begin with the best available means. It is already too late to keep on improving our means until doomsday comes. This refusal to wait—either for the perfect end or for the perfect means—is also appreciable in the apology of impatience written by Martin Luther King: "justice too long delayed is justice denied." FN

When someone advocates for nonviolent civil disobedience as a tool for reform, the point is usually made that evil means cannot bring about good ends. Then Gandhi's authority is invoked: "The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree: and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree." FN

What is less known is that, quite ironically, Gandhi could have taken this idea from Thoreau's writings on John Brown. Let us remember that, in "A Plea for Capt. John Brown," Thoreau argued "that like the seed is the fruit, and that, in the moral world, when good seed is planted, good fruit is inevitable, and does not depend on our watering and cultivating." FN

It is a well-documented fact that Gandhi cited Thoreau as one of the foremost influences in his life, and had read "Civil Disobedience" from the 1866 anthology A Yankee in Canada. FN Of course, A Yankee in Canada included the text of "A Plea". Despite the often overlooked but unequivocal reference to bloodshed in "Civil Disobedience", FN Gandhi might have had "A Plea" in mind when he recognized that "Thoreau was not perhaps an out-and-out champion of non-violence." FN

And, quite obviously, the chain does not end in Thoreau, who was also subjected to various influences. Thus it is not surprising to read in the correspondence of Coleridge (letter dated August 1820) the following: "There is no way of arriving at any sciental End but by finding it at every step. The End is in the Means: or the adequacy of each Mean is already its end." FN

It is not surprising at all because metaphors dealing with fruits and seeds are simply pervasive. According to Robert D. Richardson, Jr., it was Emerson who picked out the seed metaphor from the Quakers: "George Fox's chosen expression for the God manifest in the mind is the Seed. He means the seed of which the Beauty of the world is the flower and Goodness the fruit." FN Also, in the essay "Compensation" Emerson wrote: "Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed." FN In turn, the Quakers could have gotten their metaphors from numerous passages in the King James Version of the Bible. FN

Although Gandhi is usually credited for the pervasive analogy seed/tree//means/end, the image of the seed and the fruit was used for the same purpose in nineteenth century Anglo-American literature, including Coleridge, Emerson, and Thoreau. Their common purpose was to clarify the issue of what kind of tools should be used in order to achieve a desirable goal, be it truth or justice

All these authors stress an intimate connection between the means and the ends, the method and the result. Most literature about civil disobedience depicts Thoreau as the inventor of civil disobedience, a "bold method of moral resistance". FN The emphasis is here on civil disobedience as a means or "method", while the word "moral" suggests acceptable and nonviolent disobedience, as opposed to unmoral, unacceptable, violent resistance.

This seems to forget Thoreau's ultimate argument in "A Plea"—namely, that "the question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which you use it." FN Thoreau himself wrote in his lecture draft title that he was writing not only about Brown's "actions", but also about his "character". FN Thoreau saw Brown as a "man of ideas and principles" who was determined to bring about justice "cost what it may". In this sense, he was not primarily concerned in John Brown's weapons and deeds, but with his ends.

Although Thoreau's main points in "A Plea" do not contradict in any relevant respect the message of "Civil Disobedience," FN civil disobedience is defined by mainstream philosophers (such as John Rawls) as "a public, non-violent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government". FN Sure, its non-violent character clearly helps civil disobedience to enable a non-coercive dialogue that addresses the sense of justice of the community; that certainly is a good reason to prefer civil disobedience to other means of bringing about social change, but it does not make civil disobedience good in itself. The justification of every particular civil disobedience cannot rest alone on the goodness of the means employed, for more fundamental than the just means to fight injustice is the set of principles that tells us what makes a law (or an act of disobedience) unjust.

Naturally, this leaves open questions about what is the best set of principles, about what ends should we strive for, and about what is the relationship between means and principles and ends. But Thoreau's writing is all about that. It would be a mistake to think that he has only provided us with the right weapons to fight injustice; more than that, he has provided us with the right spirit in which this fight should be fought: one of "simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust". FN Although he was keenly aware of the organic connection between means and ends, Thoreau's reform papers are not primarily concerned with the means, with the tools. Rather, they share with his other writings their concern with the principles and with the ends, with the real moral question: the question of what it is like to live a good and just life. FN Otherwise, an excessive emphasis on the means simply leads to having "improved means to an unimproved end." FN We should not forget that civil disobedience is just a tool; perhaps a better tool than others, a seed that is more likely to yield good fruit, but nevertheless we should be careful not to "become the tools of our tools." FN

Indeed, "it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." FN As the Chinese saying goes, the first step to wisdom is getting things by their right names. FN There are a lot of definitions of civil disobedience around; some of them even imply that Thoreau's case did not qualify as orthodox civil disobedience. That is why my own definition is a particularly broad one: for me, civil disobedience is a public and deliberate illegal act that is civilly performed.

But, what is to be civil? The Oxford English Dictionary lists a good number of meanings—way too many to make much sense of the word. Assuming that it was Thoreau who coined the expression "civil disobedience", the most reasonable thing to do in order to know what "civil" means there is to look at Thoreau's writings and see how he uses the word "civil" in other contexts. I have done that, and my conclusion is that most of the time Thoreau uses the word "civil" meaning "civilized" and in sharp contrast with "the wild." (Thus Walter Harding hit the mark when in 1969 he gave a lecture entitled "Civilized disobedience.")

I would also add that in any civil society there is a prima facie obligation to obey the law. By this I just mean that the law presents itself as something that has to be obeyed just because it is the law. Obviously, I don't mean that this should always be the case. The obligation may be overridden by other considerations. But when first facing the law (this is what the Latin prima facie means) an obligation to obey it appears nevertheless. Civil disobedience breaks this prima facie obligation. This is the reason why civil disobedience is always in need of a justification. The burden of the proof is always on the disobedients' side.

My point about justification is that civil disobedience is justified through a threefold process of public dialogue involving principles, means, and ends. Principles explain why sometimes the law is civilly disobeyed. Means explain how the law is civilly disobeyed. Ends explain what the law is civilly disobeyed for. "The world rests on principles," wrote Thoreau to his friend H. G. O. Blake. Principles stem from our sociobiological nature and configure our world. The principles naturally bring about the means, and the means bring about the ends. The delicate intertwining of these three elements makes it unwise to evaluate one element independently of the others. One cannot evaluate the means without taking into account the ends and the principles ("the question is not about the weapon"). One cannot evaluate the principles without taking into account the means and the ends ("for their fruits ye shall know them"). One cannot evaluate the ends without taking into account principles and means ("I pine as much for good beginnings").

Eventually, principles, means and ends are woven together in traditions. Traditions evolve because we gradually discover that some principles are better reasons for action than others are; that some means work better than others do; that some ends are worthier than others are. To say that principles, means, and ends cannot be evaluated separately does not mean that they cannot be evaluated at all. Thus to recognize pluralism (there are different traditions) does not entail relativism (for traditions flourish and decay). <

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