Performing Conscience: Thoreau, Political Action, and the Plea for John Brown

Political Theory 33 (4):448 - 471 (2005)
Abstract
Does Henry Thoreau have a positive politics? Depending on how one conceives of politics, answers will vary. Hannah Arendt famously portrayed Thoreau's commitment to the sanctity of individual conscience as distinctly unpolitical. More recent commentators grant that Thoreau has a politics, but they characterize it as profoundly negative in character. This essay argues that Thoreau indeed sponsors a positive politics-a politics of performing conscience. The performance of conscience before an audience transforms the invocation of consciencefrom a personally political act into a publicly political one. The aim of the performance is to provoke one's neighbors into a process of individual self-reform that will make them capable of properly vigilant democratic citizenship and conscientious political agitation. I establish this claim through a sustained reading of a relatively neglected text that deserves wider attention in political theory: Thoreau's 1859 lecture defending insurrectionary activities by radical abolitionist John Brown.
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Lee A. McBride (2013). Insurrectionist Ethics and Thoreau. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 49 (1):29-45.
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