On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

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A Brief Analysis of the Structure of Thoreau s Rhetorical Technique and What He Really Had To Say
Misty A. Adams Missouri University of Science & Technology

However. sections 2 and 3 make up a complete oratory within the overall speech. The back-and-forth structure of the essay moves the audience in close to 2 . It is important to note here that Thoreau does not strictly adhere to classical oratorical arrangement. it can be argued that he does. 1995) This is a fairly accurate description of not only Thoreau s life but his writings. social status. upon close reading. in fact. but focus on two very important sections of the essay. This paper will analyze the rhetorical structure of Thoreau s Civil Disobediencethrough the classical arrangement form. (Witherell. these transcendentalist ideals are clarified via Thoreau s personal philosophy and become the core point of the speech: it is the duty of the individual to remedy the inexpediency of government. Transcendentalism can be seen as the religious and intellectual expression of American democracy: all men have an equal chance of experiencing and expressing divinity directly. first as a speech and then lateras an essay. in fact.His struggle to do right and be heard resulted in his penningCivil Disobedience. or politics. In his essayCivil Disobedience. Although he ascribed to the principles of 19th Century Transcendentalism.Henry David Thoreau was an individualist. he seems to toss it about like so much salad. employ a microarrangement technique within particular sections of the essay. A night in jail is oft-times a powerful inspiration. regardless of wealth. as well. It will not analyze each paragraph. He avoided groups in general and organized reform movements in particular. he never joined a particular group espousing this school of thought. and Thoreau s night of incarceration (for not paying a poll tax intended to fund war with Mexico) is no different. Combined. Thoreau employs this micro-arrangement technique much in the way a boxer weaves and slips in a match. Yet his philosophical views made joining the abolition movement a moral imperative.

MA in 1848. p. have both credited Thoreau s essay as pivotal inspiration. (Thoreau. the people would not have consented to this measure. 2003. if the actions of Government are immoral and unethical then any and all actions and inactions of the People to maintain such a Government make them equally immoral and unethical.This is made plain in the introductory paragraph. in fact. to the Concord Lyceum in Concord. The essay s structure and its argument against inexpedient government simultaneously obscure and reveal Thoreau s implicit thesis. when it was first published. the essay went relatively unnoticed. yet pulls safely away at the last moment to avoid damning confrontation.Thoreau s true point. 2009) In its time. and all governments are sometimes. but most governments are usually. xxix) Theses The explicit thesis of Civil Disobedience is simple. after revising the speech. A year later. Government is at best but an expedient. true. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. ¶1) The implicit thesis. Therefore. seems to be this: Government is but a machine created by the People . it was published in Aesthetic Papers in 1849 under the title Resistance to Civil Government. inexpedient Witness the present Mexican war. p. If this is. despite being described by the Boston press. the only way to alter the machine is for the People to cease their immoral actionsby ceasing to support the machine. the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool. xxix) It was not until the 20th Century thatCivil Disobedience is said to have been truly discovered. (Mott. (Levin. Jr. Political reformers such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. 2003. It is the duty of the people to act when government has become inexpedient. 1993/1849. however. (Levin. as crazy . for in the outset. About the Essay Thoreau delivered the speech. 3 . his attack upon the audience themselves.

or a pulley. then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. he most likely would have been tossed out on his ear. I have never declined paying the highway tax. I heartily accept the motto. Thoreau alludes to his implicit thesis throughout Civil Disobedience. Most people do not take kindly to being told they are not only unethical. (Thoreau. What I have to do is to see. is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. The government itself. 1993/1894. but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another. That government is best which governs least . Paragraph 18 seems to state this idea most clearly: If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government. 1993/1894. because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject [I] quietly declare war 4 . ¶1) It is a shout to his audience. or a crank. exclusively for itself. ¶1)This idea explains why the original title of the speech is On the Dutyof Civil Disobedience and not the really good idea of Civil Disobedience . (Thoreau. then I say. at times using himself as an example of how the People should act: when to pay and when not to pay their taxes. neighbors. let it go. let it go: perchance it will wear smooth certainly the machine will wear out. 1849/1993. or a rope. that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn. a request that they sit up and pay careful attention to what he is about to discuss. and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. (Thoreau. and friends. at any rate. ¶18) Essay Analysis Thoreau begins the essay by stating. break the law. but are also immoral cogs in a machine of their own making. which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will.Had Thoreau announced this outright in a lyceum full of colleagues. If the injustice has a spring.

on that separate but more free and honorable ground. and treats him accordingly. the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less despondent spirits. just as boys. and that it did not know its friends from its foes. if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite. It is there that the fugitive slave.with the State. where the 5 . is in her prisons. though I will still make use and get what advantages of her I can. (Thoreau. (Thoreau. and pitied it. it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. ¶36) I have paid no poll tax for six years [The State] As they could not reach me. especially that administered by government at the will of the people. to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act. will abuse his dog. as they have already put themselves out by their principles. they had resolved to punish my body. that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons. and the Mexican prisoner on parole. and I lost all my remaining respect for it. after my fashion. the true place for a just man is also a prison. 1849/1993. 1849/1993. ¶45) Thoreau is clearly concerned with justice and injustice. and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them. from which all its own power and authority are derived. this focus results in Civil Disobedience being an obvious example of judicial discourse. even such as I am willing to submit to for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I. ¶26) Thoreau continues to shout his explicit thesis in his conclusion. and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well is still an impure one: to be strictly just. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power. 1849/1993. Under a government which imprisons unjustly. I saw that the State was half-witted. The proper place today. stating: The authority of government. as is usual in such cases. (Thoreau.

and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State. and. "If you really wish to do anything. or give up war and slavery. "But what shall I do?" my answer is. His speech is judicial. not a strip of paper merely. joined a huckleberry party. and he bleeds to an everlasting death. but your whole influence. resign your office. nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person.State places those who are not with her. If any think that their influence would be lost there. in fact. as one has done. When I was let out the next morning. If the tax-gatherer. I proceeded to finish my errand. But even suppose blood should flow. Cast your whole vote. or any other public officer. having put on my mended shoe. he also disregards the strict rules of rhetorical discourse. just as we will see how he ignores the strict rules of classical oratorical arrangement. the State will not hesitate which to choose. that they would not be as an enemy within its walls. 1849/1993. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year. that would not be a violent and bloody measure. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison. This is. if any such is possible. and the officer has resigned from office. asks me. ¶22) Yet. but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight." When the subject has refused allegiance. discussing a pastoral huckleberry hunt and providing a poignant counterpoint to his night in jail. the definition of a peaceable revolution. the next he is epideictic. then the revolution is accomplished. deliberative. and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. I see this blood flowing now. it is not even a minority then. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man's real manhood and immortality flow out. who were impatient 6 . A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority. One moment he is exhorting the immorality of inexpedient government. and ceremonial by turns. but against her the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. (Thoreau. as it would be to pay them. they do not know by how much truth is stronger than error.

or ethical as the people themselves. 2. on one of our highest hills.to put themselves under my conduct. 1849/1993). Ralph Waldo Emerson is supposed to have remarked that most of the branches of learning were taught at Harvard and Thoreau is said to have replied. and in half an hour for the horse was soon tackled was in the midst of a huckleberry field. For this paper. 1995) One as individual as Thoreau most likely spent a great deal of time paddling against Harvard s methodical educational current. 36-38Explanation 7. and then the State was nowhere to be seen. indeed. 10-16Local government and attack on the People why YOU are immoral. He was classically educated at Harvard. (Witherell. 17-22Individual resolution individual actions. excluding Thoreau s introduction and conclusion: 1. the Individual Gov t is a machine created by the people. although he expressed dissatisfaction with the college s teaching methods. and yet his obstinate personal sense of right and wrong eventually results in the effective breaking of classical rules. (Thoreau. 42-44Attack on Politicians their inaction and immorality. it cannot be accidental. 3. 5. moral. 8-9Resistance the Individual s moral obligation to resist. Classical oratorical arrangement consists of the following: 7 . 1849/1993. 2-7Government vs. we will focus on sections 2 and 3. ¶ 34) Section Analysis Civil Disobedience. an overall call to action. is an essay consisting of 45 paragraphs. all the branches and none of the roots . two miles off. 39-41Resignation ofThoreau s actions. it is only as expedient. the version we are now most familiar with (Thoreau. 23-35Illustration of personal action 6. Yes. 8. Thoreau s jail experience. 4. the essay has been divided into eight sections. Forthis rhetorical structural analysis. atthe inaction of the People. It cannot be said that Thoreau is unaware of his micro-organizational technique.

Peroratio employs appeal through pathos. Section 2 discusses Resistance the Individual s moral obligation to resist an unjust government andsection 3 addresses Thoreau s attack upon government and upon the People why they are both immoral.y y y y y y Exordium announces subject and purpose of the discourse. When the paragraphs of the sections are broken down. appeal to logos. Narratio explains the nature of the case. Partitio points at the issue in the case. However. it is how Thoreau realigns the other classical oratorical tools within this structure that is interesting. beginning with exordium and concluding with peroratio. Sections 2 and 3 employall of the above oratorical tools but they are not arranged in the classical order. Combined. Refutatio answers opponent s counterarguments. often includes a summation. When sections 2 and 3 are read closely they are found to begin and end in the classical tradition. these two sections make up a complete oratory within the overall speech due to Thoreau s micro-arrangement of the classical oratorical tools. the following sectional structure is found: Section 2 ¶ 8 Exordium y y narratio confirmatio ¶9 Refutatio Section 3 ¶10 Narratio ¶11 Confirmatio ¶12 Partitio ¶13 Confirmatio ¶14 Partitio ¶15 Peroratio 8 . Confirmatio offers logical arguments as proof.

1993/1849. for I can do without them. but ours is the invading army. All men recognize the right of revolution. and possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. ¶8)But paragraph 8 also includes confirmatio and peroratio. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports. and to resist. when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. ¶8) The first sentence of paragraph 8 is the exordium of sections 2 and 3. I say. In this way he is able to overtly express the problem of government and subtly express the true cause of inexpedient government: the People or. But when the friction comes to have its machine. they think. in the Revolution of '75. that is. more exactly. let us not have such a machine any longer. and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army. the actions and inactions of the Individual. (Thoreau. 9 . when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it. when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves. leading the audience to one. the right to refuse allegiance to. that is. What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is not our own. At any rate. and subjected to military law. it is a great evil to make a stir about it. Section 2 begins with paragraph 8 and exhibits micro-arrangement within the paragraph itself: All men recognize the right of revolution.¶16 Peroratio This structure lends toThoreau s approach to both of the essay s theses. (Thoreau. and to resist. But such was the case. the government. then backing away and diverting their attention to the other. But almost all say that such is not the case now. 1993/1849. In other words. the right to refuse allegiance to. All machines have their friction. the government. and oppression and robbery are organized. I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.

(Thoreau. and utilitarian. ¶9) and effectively stating that cost analysis is the proper measure for contemplating the value of obeying government. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports. At any rate. . is best known for his God as a Watchmaker analogy. the confirmatio. a late 18th Century British Christian apologist. it is a great evil to make a stir about it. Paley appears never to have 10 . it is the will of God . . in the Revolution of '75. 1993/1849. ¶8) Paragraph 9 is these sections refutatio. it is a great evil make a stir about it. (Thoreau. out of place in that it immediately follows the exordium rather than. ¶8) He is pointedly saying that the current government is just as inexpedient as the government Americans rebelled against in 1775. so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconvenience. All machines have their friction. I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.But almost all say that such is not the case now. philosopher. more classically.. 1993/1849. and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army. they think. (Thoreau. so long as the interest of the whole society requires it. I say. and oppression and robbery are organized. But such was the case. (William Paley)) Paley s counter is. let us not have such a machine any longer [In] other words. for I can do without them. Thoreau introduces William Paley s Duty of Submission to Civil Government as a counterargument to his own. ¶8) Here Thoreau is offering up a logical argument. Thoreau counters with a demand for justice. it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it. that the established government be obeyed. when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves.He then states a peroratio. 1993/1849. preceding the peroratio. 1993/1849. (Thoreau. (Paley. that is.. issuing a call to action and an appeal through pathos: But when the friction comes to have its machine. and possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. and subjected to military law.

There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here. they give up only a cheap vote (Thoreau. but with those who. the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South. or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity. I quarrel not with far-off foes. respectively. ¶10) A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance. who may have been bought. and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico. co-operate with. and sometimes they petition. partitio is placed between these but Thoreau places it after them in paragraph 12. 1993/1849. Paragraphs 10 and 11 are narratio and confirmatio. At most. cost what it may. (Thoreau.contemplated those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply. ¶12) 11 . near at home. Normally. and do the bidding of. in which a people. This order brings the audience into contact with Thoreau s implicit thesis: Practically speaking. 1993/1849. 1993/1849. 1993/1849. His vote is of no more worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native. but they do nothing in earnest and with effect . and without whom the latter would be harmless They hesitate. cost what it may. must do justice. it will be because they are indifferent to slavery. ¶ 11) [The respectable man] forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one. (Thoreau. nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. They will then be the only slaves. those far away. and they regret. thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery. ¶9) Thoreau intimates that the Individual s duty of obtaining justice cannot be ignored because of perceived public inconvenience . as well as an individual. (Thoreau.

and see to it that you are never cheated again. if he gives it no thought longer. (Thoreau. It not only divided States and churches. separating the diabolical in him from the divine. 1993/1849. available and reminds him of his moral duty to take on this recommended action in the confirmatio of paragraph 13: It is not a man's duty. (Thoreau. ¶14) Paragraphs 15 and 16 move on to peroratio. and from immoral it becomes. unmoral. changes things and relations. and. Action from principle. The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue to sustain it. to wash his hands of it. or even with petitioning him to pay you your due. again stating the point at issue.These paragraphs are stating that the individual makes himself submissive to government through both inaction (not voting) and action (voting). or with saying that you are cheated. and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made. as a matter of course. Yet Thoreau provides the individual with what he announces as the onlyredemptive action. If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor. and does not consist wholly with anything which was. ay. it divides the individual. 1993/1849. but it is his duty. he may still properly have other concerns to engage him. (Thoreau. to devote himself to the eradication of any. Thoreau is summing up the arguments of sections 2 and 3 and appealing to his audiences sense of justice. not to give it practically his support. even to most enormous wrong.After the first blush of sin comes its indifference. at least.. ¶15) Section 3 ends with paragraph 16: 12 . it is essentially revolutionary. ¶13) Thoreau again uses partitio in paragraph 14. as it were. but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount. it divides families. you do not rest satisfied with knowing you are cheated. 1993/1849.. the perception and the performance of right.

the remedy would be worse than the evil. under such a government as this. the government. under such a government as this. They think that. It makes it worse. and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther. (Thoreau. that is. They think that. and obey them until we have succeeded. generally. the exordium and peroratio form a complete argument: All men recognize the right of revolution. the right to refuse allegiance to.Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them. the remedy would be worse than the evil. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop 13 . think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults. or shall we endeavor to amend them. generally. and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels? (Thoreau. when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable [Men]. establishes the overall argument expressedwithin sections 2 and 3. 1993/1849. if they should resist. Men. if they should resist. generally. the remedy would be worse than the evil. under such a government as this. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. which is Thoreau s explicit thesis. They think that. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. if they should resist. 16) This. ¶16)When combined. (Thoreau. 1993/1849. ¶16) Paragraph 16 contains the overall peroratio for sections 2 and 3. 1993/1849. ¶ 8. and to resist. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. or shall we transgress them at once? Men. Thoreau s micro-arrangement method also brings to light his implicit thesis: the People must cease their immoral actions by ceasing to support the machine. then. It makes it worse. However.

at any rate. (Thoreau. But we should not walk away from the essay only appreciating the value of resisting that which we find morally wrong. ¶ 18) In Conclusion Thoreau s Civil Disobedience strikes as much of a chord today as it did in the last century for Gandhi and MLK. Rather than directly insult his audience. yet effective. What I have to do is to see. use of classical oratorical rhetoric.the machine. 14 . one hinged upon the other. Thoreau seems to have had faith that those who were willing to truly listen would grasp his true meaning and act from it. that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn. we should also appreciate Thoreau s liberal. he uses classical tools to carefully craft his speech around two distinct theses. 1993/1849.

Retrieved October 12. W. Dubrulle.html?s=9ca9170a0ca10d1c c52b14861abbe7b5 15 . 2010 from http://www.gutenberg. H.). (1995). Project Gutenberg.org/default.References Levin. J. Retrieved October 13. Stade (Ed.ucsb. 2010 from http://www. Retrieved October 13.html William Paley. Thoreau. E. D. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. Introduction.walden.. Retrieved October 10. The Walden Woods Project.html.berkeley. October 26.eserver. Retrieved. (2003). The Writings of Henry D. 2010 from http://www. 2010 from http://www. (1993). Mott.org/Library/About_Thoreau's_Life_and_Writings:_The_Researc h_Collections/Civil_Disobedience Thoreau.edu/history/paley. E.edu_thoreau_thoreau_life. Civil disobedience. Civil disobedience.html Witherell. (2009). Life and times of Henry David Thoreau. xii-xxxiv).org/ebooks/71 (Original work published 1849) The Thoreau Reader. Walden and Civil Disobedience (pp.library. 2010 from http://thoreau. In G.ucmp.

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