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In "Civil Disobedience," how are Thoreau's perceptions of his fellow citizens changed...

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h3nry111 | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted May 2, 2010 at 5:54 AM via web

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In "Civil Disobedience," how are Thoreau's perceptions of his fellow citizens changed by his night in jail?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted May 2, 2010 at 6:02 AM (Answer #1)

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After he spends his night in jail, it seems as if Thoreau really sees himself as superior to the other people in the society (and to the society itself).   Basically, he seems to be saying that everyone else in the society is too stupid to understand the truth about life.

When Thoreau is locked up, he says, he feels free because what happens to his body is not important.  What is important is that he can think.  He seems to be saying that the other people don't understand that thinking is what is important, not your physical comfort or pleasure.  Thinking is what makes you free.

After he gets out Thoreau also talks about how his fellow citizens don't really care about right or wrong.  They only did what was easiest.

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winston-smith | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted February 19, 2015 at 9:20 PM (Answer #2)

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Civil Disobedience is an essay about Thoreau’s ideas about the government and his recounting of the time he spent in jail for not paying his taxes. After his release from jail, a friend paid his taxes for him, Thoreau reflects on how his perceptions of his neighbors has changed. Thoreau claims that he has a better understanding of the way the world works when he says, “I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived.” His awakened vision is what allows him to look at his neighbors and he makes this comment, “I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only.;…” Thoreau makes reference to the idea of his neighbors being only fair weather friends, people who are friendly or at least are civil with only when it costs them nothing. The first change in his vision of his neighbors is that he has lost so much trust in them that he does not even consider them to be his neighbors any more. Thoreau furthers the idea that they are foreign to him when he says, “that they did not greatly purpose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are;…” Thoreau once believed that he and his neighbors had common beliefs but now after his time in jail he does not see any similarities between himself and his neighbors. Thoreau continues to expound on these differences going so far to suggest that they have given up what it means to be human for comfort and security when he says, “that, in their sacrifices to humanity, they ran no risks, not even to their property; that, after all, they were not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a particular straight though useless path from time to time, to save their souls.” Thoreau transitions from saying that those who were once his neighbors now no longer share in any similarities to himself, they have false beliefs, they have given up what he considers humanity for comfort and even goes so far as to suggest that they through their complacency have elevated the thieves (government) to some form of deity that by obeying will have no discomfort. Thoreau does give his neighbors some forgiveness when he says, “This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that most of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village.” The forgiveness come through in the patronizing idea that I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly purpose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are; that, in their sacrifices to humanity, they ran no risks, not even to their property; that, after all, they were not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a particular straight though useless path from time to time, to save their souls. This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that most of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village." The forgiveness come through in the patronizing idea that they are this way because they are unaware. His neighbors lack the knowledge of jail and that the threats that it holds are far less damaging to a person than giving in to the tyranny of a heedless government. Thoreau himself gained a firsthand education about jails from as he refers to it an institution, and obvious play on the idea of schools and colleges also being called institutions.

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