How does Thoreau use rhetorical questions in his argument in "Civil Disobedience"?

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Rhetorical questions are questions that have only one right answer. The following is a classic example of a rhetorical question : "Is the pope Catholic?" This question is not meant to get people scurrying to their cellphones with the sudden worry of "What? Is the current pope actually Catholic? Let...

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Rhetorical questions are questions that have only one right answer. The following is a classic example of a rhetorical question: "Is the pope Catholic?" This question is not meant to get people scurrying to their cellphones with the sudden worry of "What? Is the current pope actually Catholic? Let me look that up!" Of course the pope is Catholic. There is only one answer to the question. The question is used to emphasize that the speaker or writer's arguments are self-evident and obvious. Likewise, a politician might end a plea for increasing public services to the elderly by asking his audience: "Do you love your mother?" This is not an invitation to ponder, "Hmm, do I really love my mother? Is she a good parent? Or is she perhaps an evil witch?" It is meant to solicit the single answer "yes." And, of course, if you love your mother, you will support programs for the elderly.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and rhetorical questions are meant to persuade by making the writer's arguments seem so self-evident that there is no alternative but to support them. Thoreau, jailed for refusing to pay his taxes, explains this law breaking as an act of conscience and argues that an individual's conscience must take precedence over corrupt laws. He uses his rhetorical questions to make this seem obvious.

For example, he asks,

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

He goes on to ask,

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation?

The obvious answer to the first question is "yes," and to second, "no."

Both questions, as rhetorical questions usually are, are framed to leave out important considerations. In the first question, for example, a government that privileged the primacy of individual conscience could indeed be designed; but is that workable or desirable in any pragmatic way? Would it cause more problems that it solved? And while in a pure world, the answer to the second question is "no," other questions arise: how is anything ever accomplished in politics without compromise? Thoreau, however, is not interested in hashing out realities in posing these questions, but in persuading the public to support his act of civil disobedience.

To his credit, Thoreau also peppers his essay with non-rhetorical questions. You can identify a rhetorical question as such because it almost always offers just two alternatives and can be answered with a "yes" or "no." A "why" question, for example, is not answered by a "yes" or "no," and so it often invites more thought than a rhetorical question.

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Thoreau discusses the way in which people become enslaved by the law, enacting injustices simply because the law dictates that some action or other is legal or proper. He says,

A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers [...] marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences [...]. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? [....] The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.

Here, Thoreau uses rhetorical questions to enlist his audience's support, even while he makes the argument. He persuasively explains a situation that most people can imagine, being forced to participate in a conflict that one finds unnecessary at best, and then he asks us if in this situation, when one has allowed oneself to be stripped of one's will and compelled to act against one's conscience, one can still count oneself "a man." Clearly, he expects us to answer in the negative, to agree that these individuals have allowed themselves to be turned into machines who only take instruction and fail to think and act for themselves. In this way, Thoreau makes it difficult for us to find a way to disagree with him; he skillfully uses rhetorical questions to win us to his position by making it seem like the answers he wants are actually indisputably objective.

A bit later, Thoreau asks,

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.

Next, rather than simply tell us that he believes that the citizen should never resign his conscience to the law, he asks us what we think. However, he phrases his question in such a way that it becomes extremely unlikely that we would answer other than the way he would wish. Who is actually going to suggest that one should willing give up one's guiding principles or moral compass? Thoreau suggests that there is simply no reason to have such principles if one will simply resign them.

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Among other rhetorical devices, Henry David Thoreau makes extensive use of rhetorical questions to further his argument in "Civil Disobedience."  For example, in the second paragraph of the essay, Throeau asks:

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?

This passage highlights a difference that Thoreau identifies between the aims of "American government" not to become "[]impaired" through history and its actual practice which "each instant" impairs "some of its integrity." By setting up this distinction, he sets the stage for his analysis in the paragraph that follows of America's failings.

Several paragraphs later, Thoreau addresses the issue of majority rule and asks a sequence of rhetorical questions:

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 legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then?

Again, the goal is to point out the difference between the professed aims of government and its actual practice.  Pointing out that "conscience," which ought to guide the "majorities" does not articulate itself in "legislation."  Thus, majority rule fails because of the mediation of the legislative apparatus.

Finally, when honing in on Northern hypocrisy regarding slavery in America, Thoreau inquires:

What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today?

This question both alludes to the practice of slavery--trafficking in human ownership--through the figure of "the price-current of an honest man" and implies that there are scarcely any "honest [men]" and "patriot[s]" in his antebellum America.  Just like the two other rhetorical questions, Thoreau uses this one to highlight the distance between ideals and reality.

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