Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

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Explain the quote,“Is it not possible that we recognize and organize the rights of man?” in relation to modern life. "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In the conclusion to his essay, Thoreau reiterates the importance of the individual in relation to the state or government. He discusses the progression from an absolute monarchy to a limited monarchy to a democracy, and he concedes that this progression does represent, at least, some "progress toward a true respect for the individual." However, he does not believe that democracy is truly the final step in this process; not even democracy fully recognizes the importance of the individual. Rhetorically, he asks, "Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?" In other words, he implies that it is absolutely possible to move closer toward affirming individual rights. He insists that this affirmation will not have been achieved fully until the state acknowledges that the individual is a higher power, is of greater significance, than it. His question, which you've cited, represents yet another way in which Thoreau insists that more progress needs to take place in order for the individual to assume his or her proper position in American politics.

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mwestwood, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The line quoted is from the conclusion of Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience."  A strong individualist, Thoreau was a firm believer in the individual rights of men, as opposed to majority rule.  Each person's moral duty, Thoreau felt, is to obey the leadings of one's own conscience.  Civil law, the power of the majority,is not to be first; on the contrary, it should be subjugated to the higher moral law as discerned by the individual.  Thoreau wishes to organize the rights of man because with the poll tax the state government--what Thoreau termas the civil government-- comes into conflict with the individual and his rights. When Thoreau writes, "Is it not possible that we recognize and organize the rights of man?" he implies that there cannot be a truly free country until it recognizes that the rights of the individual supercede the power and the authority of the state. For, the individual is "a higher and independent power."  As such, men must protest if there is an unjust law.

In modern times, the Civil Rights Movement was based upon Thoreau's ideas as Dr. Martin Luther King felt that men must break laws if they are unjust and violate the rights of the individual.  Likewise, protesters of the Vietnam War followed Thoreau's words that men who serve in an unjust war are mere "machines [of the state] with their bodies."

 

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