In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau says that "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already." What does he mean by this?

When Thoreau says that "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already," he means that one person can be a moral majority when that person stands for truth and goodness.

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To understand the quote "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already" from the essay "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau , it is important to consider its context. Concerning a lesser subject, the quote might be considered grandiose and even presumptuous; however,...

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To understand the quote "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already" from the essay "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau, it is important to consider its context. Concerning a lesser subject, the quote might be considered grandiose and even presumptuous; however, in the essay in general, and in the particular paragraph in which the quote appears, Thoreau is not dealing in opinions but in moral absolutes.

He is discussing the issue of slavery and the cause of the abolitionists, who were fighting to eradicate slavery from the state of Massachusetts and the rest of the United States. In the same paragraph, Thoreau writes of the abolitionists that "it is enough that they have God on their side." In this context, "any man more right than his neighbors" is anyone who understands that imposing slavery upon other people is always wrong under any circumstances.

There can be no variance from this moral absolute. It is always right, and those who do not believe and support it are always wrong. In a broader sense, "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one" applies to any principle or moral absolute in which there is an undeniable right or wrong stance.

This quote underpins Thoreau's argument in the essay about why he was willing to go to prison rather than pay the poll tax. He writes that "under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." He writes that he is willing to pay the highway tax and to support schools, but he refuses to pay the poll tax because he wants to "refuse allegiance to the state."

Ultimately, Thoreau's views on this matter would greatly influence other reformers, such as Mahatma Gandhi, who used the principle of nonviolent civil disobedience to help India achieve its independence, and Martin Luther King Jr., who used nonviolent civil disobedience in the cause of civil rights in the United States. These great men took such quotes as "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one" as rallying cries and justifications of the righteousness of their struggles.

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In his essay "Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau calls for all abolitionists to immediately withdraw their support, both financial and personal, from the Massachusetts government to combat the evil the state is perpetrating in collaborating with slavery. He says that they must not wait for a majority of people to agree with and support them, for God is on their side.

Rather, Thoreau asserts that "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already." In other words, possessing the truth and being committed to good is far more important than going along with a majority. The majority of people can be wrong. The majority of people can be following a lie. The majority of people can be perpetrating injustice. In this case, the person who knows the truth and lives by it forms his own "majority of one."

The deep meaning of this assertion lies in Thoreau's word play with the phrase "the majority of one." Normally, the phrase means having attained the numerical majority by one person. In a vote, for instance, an issue can usually pass or a candidate be elected with a mere one-person majority.

Thoreau, however, turns the phrase on its head. One person can be a majority in himself or herself, Thoreau maintains, if that person is in the right. In this case, morality makes majority, not numbers. Truth and goodness take priority over the numerical majority, and even a "majority of one" person certain of his or her morally correct position can feel confident acting from that position, no matter how much opposition might stand in the way.

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When Thoreau describes the majority of one, he is registering his disapproval of a system where the majority rules. Just because a person is in the majority does not mean that the person believes what is just or moral or right. The majority can absolutely be unjust and morally wrong. For him, the one person not included in the 99% majority might still be in the right, and thus counts for more than all the people who are in the wrong. If one is correct in one's belief, one's belief is more important and is a majority of one over however many people are against that one. He says, "I think that it is enough if [resistors] have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already." Thoreau is wary of the tyranny of the majority, and he advises the minority that it "is powerless while it conforms to the majority; […] but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight." If the minority works together, it can absolutely disrupt the workings of the majority in order to achieve its aims.

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Thoreau is expressing his belief in the importance of the individual. He had some big problems with the concept of majority rule. According to him, majority rule has nothing to do with right vs. wrong because 99% can be wrong. It also has nothing to do with fairness because it is not truly a fair society where 49% of the population is unhappy. Thoreau said that the only reason majority rule is in place is because of physical strength...which is no reason to make major decisions. Literally, if it came down to it, the majority could beat up the minority. The "majority of one" you refer to is Thoreau's way of saying it is the thoughts and beliefs of you that truly matter. He is expressing the idea of Individualism defeating conformity.  

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