The critical commentary addressing Thoreau’s essay is both extensive and varied. The point of this chapter is not to provide an exhaustive survey of this secondary literature but, rather, to introduce some of the significant channels of interpretation to be found in this broad interpretive literature. Helpful examples from the secondary literature will be used to explain and illustrate points of view, but readers should not take this discussion as a thorough or complete summary of the enormous literature touching on how we might read and understand Thoreau’s political views. In what follows, interpreters are separated into four general

groups: those who believe Thoreau’s views are simply not relevant to serious thinking about politics; those who believe his political ideas are incoherent and therefore indefensible and possibly dangerous; those who believe Thoreau is a fundamentally undemocratic political thinker; and those who believe Thoreau contributes (coherently and importantly) to democratic theory and values in his famous essay. As we will see, there is significant variation within each of these categories, providing for lively debate even among authors sharing a general understanding of the basic thrust and meaning of Thoreau’s ideas. There is huge variety in the way

Thoreau’s political readers have understood his ideas, and these differences are not merely about minor issues or matters of secondary concern. It is quite remarkable how one short essay, written well over a century and a half ago, has inspired such radically different readings. A warning is required at the outset. The extensive interpretive

literature could be organized differently from how it is here. It is hoped that the set of distinctions offered in what follows is illuminating, but different distinctions could certainly be made (for example, we could compare methodological differences among interpreters rather than the different substantive conclusions they reach). In addition, the categories of interpretation described below are not mutually exclusive; any given reading of Civil Disobedience may actually represent, to a greater or lesser degree, one or more of the interpretive categories used here. It is possible to believe, for example, that Thoreau was both incoherent and committed to democratic values, or instead, that he is both incoherent and undemocratic. In fact, many examples from the secondary literature could be used to illustrate more than one of these positions. Keeping these points in mind, it is helpful to distinguish between these four quite different understandings of how we should understand and interpret Thoreau’s political ideas.