Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

Civil Disobedience book cover
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How does the author's use of rhetorical questions contribute to the persuasiveness and message in the story?

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The famous essay "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau argues that people should think for themselves and obey the dictates of their consciences even if in doing so they are forced to disobey contradictory governmental laws. Thoreau first presents his reasoning, and then he illustrates his point by telling a story of how he once went to jail for refusing to pay a tax that would enforce slavery and fund a war with Mexico.

A rhetorical question is a question asked for effect. The questioner does not really expect an answer. Instead, asking the question emphasizes the importance of the answer, which the speaker then delivers himself. In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau repeatedly uses this literary device to express the urgency, seriousness, and magnitude of what he is saying. Let's look some examples to see how this contributes to the essay's persuasiveness and message.

Thoreau begins the second paragraph by asking:

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?

To Thoreau, the answer to this question is obvious and does not need to be expressed. It is as he states: the government is a tradition and is steadily losing its integrity. He goes on to state:

It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will.

Here Thoreau expresses the individualism that is the basis of his essay. According to him, the government is merely a tradition lacking integrity, whereas a person with a conscience and a will to live by his convictions is more vital and powerful.

A few paragraphs later, Thoreau asks a string of rhetorical questions one after another.

Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?⁠—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?

In asking these questions one after another, Thoreau is leading his readers through a train of thought that comes to an ultimate conclusion. He expects his readers to respond to each question as it is asked and ultimately come to the right conclusion, which he states at the end of the questions:

I think that we should be men first and subjects afterward.

All of the questions he asks in the buildup make this statement much more powerful when he expresses it. A third example of a rhetorical question is asked a few paragraphs later:

How does it become a man to behave towards this American government today?

Thoreau then writes:

I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.

In this instance, the answer Thoreau gives is not necessarily the answer that his readers would come to. However, his intention is to shock his readers and shake them up in the hope that they will be receptive to the radical thoughts that he is imparting. Thoreau goes on like this throughout the essay, using rhetorical questions to give strength to his arguments.

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