On civil disobedience through the ages

Maria J. Stephan traces a radical idea from Antigone through to Gandhi.



Maria J. Stephan traces a radical idea from Antigone through to Gandhi.


People protesting injustices goes way back. The first recorded case was in the 5th century BC, it was recorded in a play called Antigone. And the main character Antigone refused to obey the order of the king, Creon, who was the King of Thebes – so think modern-day authoritarian – who said, “You cannot bury your brother, Polynices. And anyone who tries to bury this man will be put to death.” And Antigone so believed in the morality of burying her brother that she disobeyed the law and buried her brother. And she faced death, but that act of disobedience was the first recorded case where an individual challenged an unjust law.

Fast forward to the 19th century, you have Henry David Thoreau, American essayist, philosopher, writer, who refused to pay taxes as a means of protesting the US war in Mexico and to protest the existence of slavery. So Thoreau was arrested and he later wrote … he was put in a gaol, and he later wrote his famous essay on civil disobedience. And the main thesis of the essay on civil disobedience is that it is the moral duty of every citizen to disobey immoral, unjust laws.

Then fast forward to Mahatma Gandhi in the 20th century. Gandhi had read Thoreau, he was fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system. He took Thoreau’s idea of individual civil disobedience and applied it on a mass level. So Mahatma Gandhi was the first one to develop an actual methodology of mass civil resistance and non-cooperation, which he used very, very effectively to challenge the British colonial regime from about 1916 to 1947. And I would say one of the most fascinating campaigns during the Gandhi-led independence movement in India was the famous Salt March. 

So the 1930 Salt March, Mahatma Gandhi started out with a few followers and marched 240 miles across Western India, picked up followers, fellow activists, Indians along the way. And the march was a protest against the British monopoly on salt. So the British were refusing to allow Indians to make their own salt. So Mahatma Gandhi by then had tens of thousands of followers, arrived at Dandi Beach, picked up water, which evaporated to make salt, and by doing that, he was engaging in mass defiance against the laws of the British colonial regime. 

Indians saw what he had done and there were shockwaves sent across the subcontinent that this mass civil disobedience was possible and it was powerful. And that one campaign inspired a plethora of new acts, of boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience targeting various aspects of the British colonial regime. And it was one of the most significant actions, I would say, and campaigns of civil resistance in human history.