War Tax Resister Richard Groff on H.D. Thoreau

Tax resister Richard Groff, whose letter to the IRS I reprinted in ’s Picket Line, also wrote a four-part essay for MANAS on Thoreau (which was later published as Thoreau and the prophetic tradition). I’m a sucker for Thoreau, so I dove into this eagerly.

The essay, surprisingly to me considering Groff’s own tax resistance, does not attend much to Thoreau’s civil disobedience specifically, but instead analyzes Thoreau’s relentless self-examination and enthusiastic philosophy of living in an interesting attempt to place it in what Groff describes as a prophetic tradition. (Links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.) Some excerpts:

One of Thoreau’s discoveries in the Walden woods was that it may be easier to enjoy creative leisure when poor than when wealthy. He was not stricken by poverty but rather apprenticed himself to her to learn what she might have to teach. Intentional poverty, he found, is free of the business details and anxieties which plague the lives of those for whom the expression “high standard of living” carries only economic implications. Such a man avoids the world of commerce not because he is unequal to it but because he is above it. Life and time are worth too much to squander them in the idle pursuit of material riches. Thoreau reminds us that after we have obtained the minimum in food, clothing and shelter — and the minimum here, he shows us, is considerably lower than we are accustomed to think — we must then choose whether to spend our surplus vitality on superfluities for the body or necessities of the soul: “There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.” Having cast the mote of economic bondage from his own eye, Thoreau sees clearly the absurd contradictions in the lives of his idly industrious neighbors who slave-drive themselves, “making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day.” Vividly he portrays the inverted values of society: “No man ever stood lower in my estimation for having a patch on his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.”

Instead of solving his own problem of livelihood by increasing his income, Thoreau did it by decreasing his wants (“For a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone”) and supplying them by wholesome work with his hands: “For myself I found that the occupation of a day-laborer was the most independent of any, especially as it required only thirty or forty days in a year to support me.” “I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely…” The essay Life Without Principle sets forth his profound and eloquent thoughts on the subject of right livelihood.…

Where others would wrangle confusedly on the periphery of an important question, Thoreau with his clarity of mind cut through the confusion by seeing its absolute and not merely its relative implications. For example, to those for whom the validity of the Fugitive Slave Law hinged upon its Constitutionality, he says: “In important moral and vital questions, like this, it is just as impertinent to ask whether a law is constitutional or not, as to ask whether it is profitable or not.… The question is, not whether you or your grandfather, seventy years ago, did not enter into an agreement to serve the Devil, and that service is not accordingly now due; but whether you will not now, for once and at last, serve God, — in spite of your own past recreancy, or that of your ancestor, — by obeying that eternal and only just constitution, which He, and not any Jefferson or Adams, has written in your being.”

More from MANAS:

If you like the idea of the voluntary, anarchist community… you can start living as if you were in one. It is difficult, of course; especially at first. But the revolutionists of the past were willing to sleep under bridges and die before firing squads. They warped their lives out of commitment to an ideal which involved extreme self-sacrifice. What the present revolution, Gandhi-style, calls for is refusing to warp yourself any more than you must. It calls for trying to live like a whole man in a socially mutilated community. So live as though you had no State, and needed none. How else will the functions of the State ever get reduced?

It goes without saying that the individual or family which moves in this direction will find itself tangled in a whole mess of theoretical and even practical contradictions, but what of that? The contradictions are not as bad as those which haunt the people who are being herded along to their ruin by the great military powers of the world.

Participate directly in no joint undertaking the success of which depends in any decisive way upon the coercion of other human beings. You are born as a party to an existing social contract which may have features you don’t like. You have comparatively little control over the terms of that contract. But tomorrow’s social contract is as yet unwritten, and the most important feature of that contract will be the latitude it allows to the individual for the production of human good. This is a practical, not a theoretical question. Tomorrow’s social contract will not make room for good that is not being expressed — already in production, that is. Free social forms cannot be created except by men who are already free.

What sort of men are these? Well, they are the men we like to write about and quote in these pages, men such as Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, Paine, Whitman, and some others. These were men who had their freedom regardless of their time and circumstances. They were men of enormous intensity in their lives and their work. They created regions of freedom by moving around and gaining room for freedom by using it. If we can get enough men of this sort, we shall easily find the pattern of social organization which fits the activities to which they are devoted. But whatever the men we get, the pattern of society will either spread out or close in to fit their activities.