The St. John’s Amnesty International collective held the first of a series of seminars on political engagement last Tuesday evening. The seminar was led by tutors Martha and Grant Franks and attended by eighteen assorted citizens. From freshmen to graduate students to visitors, everyone participated. We all realized we had something at stake.
“It was clear that everyone had read carefully and thought deeply about the reading. It was also great to see so many freshmen,” said Onysha Boak, the sophomore behind these Amnesty International seminars. She decided to organize the seminars to “to better inform our activism and actions in understanding, or at least thinking, of how we can be more conscientious citizens.”
Mr. Franks opened the seminar: “Is Thoureau opposed to slavery and the Mexican American War sipported by the state, or is he opposed more generally to a state which would tax him?” Inherent in this were questions of how we ourselves would leave that room to participate — or refuse participation— in our democracy and in our communities.
Over the next two and a half hours, (time ran over,) we discussed, amongst other things, “whether his ultimate desire is for freedom or for virtue;” “if he wants to go back to Rousseau’s state of nature, that we would all live in isolation;” and “if the source and authority of individual conscience is absolute.”
“I think we gained a greater appreciation of Thoreau’s reasons for his actions and his vision of a just society,” said Ms. Boak. “It was also great to see the connection between Thoreau and other program authors, especially Plato. And I think we were left with questions of how we can make possible the society Thoreau envisions and what sorts of actions do and don’t fall out of his principles.”
Thoreau wrote in the beginning of his speech, “The government is best which governs not at all, and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” When we are prepared for it. Ms. Franks asked, “Do you think we can get to that state of reason, of morality, though education?” We paused. We saw each other. We’d try.
Photo courtesy of Hannah Loomis.