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In "Civil Disobedience," what kind of changes does Thoreau want to see accomplished...

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oinkimaflamingo | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted October 27, 2009 at 6:56 AM via web

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In "Civil Disobedience," what kind of changes does Thoreau want to see accomplished and what persuasive techniques are used in the essay?

Henry David Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted October 27, 2009 at 10:56 AM (Answer #1)

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In "Resistance to Civil Government, Thoreau argues that the standing army, which is "an arm of the standing government," is the vehicle of government abuse.  Thoreau asks his reader to

Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool.

Clearly Thoreau thinks the war against Mexico declared on May 9, 1846, to be unjustified.  Because he refused to support the war with his taxes, Thoreau went to jail.  To impress upon the reader the people's power to dissent, he uses an appeal to logic by stating,

But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.

He then asks a series of rhetorical questions, such as

Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?

Repetition found in the persuasive technique of parallelism is employed by Thoreau.  For instance, when Thoreau contends that governments show how successfully men can be imposed upon for their own advantage, he begins several sentences in the same pattern:

This American government--what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? [rhetorical question] It has not the vitality and force of a single man....It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves;...It is not the less necessary...It does not keep the country free.  It does not settle the West.  It does not educate.  The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished...

This parallelism is effective because the reader realizes the government is a thing, and, as such, cannot act;  rather, people are the ones who effect action.

Another example of repetition comes later, emphasizing Thoreau's passion regarding his topic:

I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name --if ten hones men only--aye, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusettts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from the ....

Thoreau employs logical appeals in his argument against majority rule:

But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.

Near the end of his rhetoric in which he also employs irony (his use of the word maniac, in mocking his "crime") Thoreau concludes that he

saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respoect for it, and pitied it....

In his denunciation of big government, Thoreau also uses allusion in the phrase "wash his hands of it" as he refers to Pontius Pilate's washing of his hands to claim his guiltlessness in the death of Jesus Christ.  Through this allusion, Thoreau says that people do not have to solve all the world's problems, but they must make sure they are not providing de facto support for the immoral actions of their government.

Another allusion of Thoreau's is one that refers to the Bible story in which the Lord offers to spare the city of Sodom if ten righteous residents can be found (Genesis 18:26-32)  Paradox is also another literary tool that Thoreau employs paradox to mitigate the credibility of the men who have declared that they would not go to war with Mexico, yet they purchase cotton or tobacco products, which add to the slavers' profits; in addition, they pay taxes, thus adding to the war effort.

According to Thoreau, when a law is unjust, it is the duty and right of "the just person to refuse to obey it."

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