Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” is a classic text of liberal democracy. It talks primarily about the limits of government and whether or not people should always be expected to obey what their government tells them. Importantly, it makes an argument that in certain cases it is important to make sure that people do not obey their government, but instead that they behave in ways that they consider to be morally right. This paper will consider how Thoreau uses rhetric in order to make these arguments and to convince his reader.

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One of the most important rhetorical tactics that Thoreau uses is to appeal to what he considers to be the American character or personality, and to contrast that with the government. Instead of arguing that the character of the American person and the nature of the American government are the same thing, he argues that they should be seen as different. His writing therefore draws attention to how government can be seen to impose instead of creating. He writes: “This government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character of the American people has done all that has been accomplished…” (2002, 93).

This passage works in two ways. First of all, it draws attention to what Thoreau understands are the great achievements of people in America, and what people should feel proud of about the country. In this way, he is able to inspire positive feelings in the reader and to make them think of America as an essentially positive thing. This means that it is not possible to understand any criticism of the American government as a criticism of the American people. Instead of this, it is made clear that Thoreau wants to be able to separate the idea of government from the idea of America itself. By making a list of what he considers to be great achievements and then saying that they were not due to the government, he is able to both praise America and set up a criticism of the government.

Following this, Thoreau extends the idea government is not necessarily good to the idea that one should not always obey the law, or that obeying the law does automatically make someone a good person. He uses a rhetorical image to make this clear and writes: “A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to wars against their wills…and consciences” (94). This image is clearly meant to suggest a ridiculous sight. Again, Thoreau uses a list in order to make his point. The argument is that the war which is being fought is unjust, or stupid, and the just of the list makes it seem as if it is ridiculous. Importantly, the image also involves a contradiction. In one sense the people who are marching are in perfect order, or at least they are marching in a way that sees to suggest that they are well trained and disciplined. However, at the same time the reason for marching is stupid and therefore the whole war is seen as being ridiculous. In this way, the image becomes funny, and is effective rhetoric because it makes use of an image that many people will recognize.

I would argue that this is one of the most important parts of Thoreau’s rhetoric. He takes traditional ideas of nobility and order and either shows how government does not help with them or shows how they are in fact ridiculous. This often involves turning ideas upside down. For example, at one point he writes that, given the condition of slavery in the USA: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (100). This idea turns the usual idea of prisons upside down. Prisons are usually understood the be places for unjust people, where they must either go in order to learn to change their behaviour, or to be kept out away from other people. However, by saying that prisons are places where just men might be, Thoreau effectively challenges to whole structure of society. By doing this he makes it impossible to fully trust in the fact that a person’s role in society, i.e. whether they are in prison or not, should be taken as a guide to their character or their personality. Instead, he suggests that such desciiosn and judgements can no longer be made easily and that people must be strong enough to form and trust their own opinions and thoughts. This effect is achieved throughout the piece by the relatively simple but skillfully done technique of taking an idea and turning it around.

In conclusion, “Civil Disobedience” makes its arguments using various techniques. The most important of these are the separation of government from the idea of people, and also the use of traditional images that can be made to see ridiculous or stupid. When this is most effective, it can also be seen to involve taking clear ideas about justice, and how to judge a person or an invent, and turning the upside down which forces the reader to question their most basic views about society.

  • Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. London: Penguin, 2002.