Note how Thoreau qualifies his argument in paragraph 40 of "Civil Disobedience"; how does using this rhetorical strategy serve his purpose?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In paragraph 40 of "Civil Disobedience ," Thoreau is at pains to stress that, contrary to the impression he may have given, he is not a trouble-maker. He doesn't wish to quarrel with any man or nation; all he wants is a pretext for conformity. And every year, when...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In paragraph 40 of "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau is at pains to stress that, contrary to the impression he may have given, he is not a trouble-maker. He doesn't wish to quarrel with any man or nation; all he wants is a pretext for conformity. And every year, when the bothersome tax-gatherers come round to take their pound of flesh, Thoreau tries his damnedest to find an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land.

There is a tension here between two rival perspectives, battling it out in Thoreau's soul. On the one hand, the institutions of American government can appear perfectly good and worthy of admiration—at least from an imminent, worldly perspective. But from a higher, more objective standpoint, it can be seen that they are virtually worthless. It really all depends on which perspective we choose to adopt. In trying to present himself as a reasonable critic of the institutions of government, Thoreau uses logos, or an appeal to reason, in this section, culminating in a rhetorical question that invites the reader to think deeply on the question of the value of American government and its institutions.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At this late stage of his argument, Thoreau qualifies his position by stating that he actually "seeks . . . an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land." He does not want to disobey the nation's laws; on the contrary, he wants those laws to be just and equitable and fair so that his morals will allow him to obey them. When the laws have been rendered fair and just, then he will gladly follow them. "I am but too ready to conform to them," he declares. Thoreau uses this strategy to allay readers' fears about his motives and to quiet critics who might accuse him of hating the government or simply being a person who longs for an excuse to break laws. Contrary to this, Thoreau says that he is quite eager to follow the laws because he wants those laws to be just.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the beginning portion of "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau criticizes the nature of the government and how it serves to rob citizens of their voice rather than to offer them a true democratic system.  Thoreau is aware that his ideas may offend readers, and he does not want to lose his credibility by potentially being labeled as a trouble-maker, so he alters his rhetoric at this point to show his willingness to be a part of the government.  Thoreau says, "I am but too ready to conform to them," meaning that if governmental laws were truly created by the people, then he would happy submit to them.  Later in the paragraph, Thoreau employs a rhetorical question after he has asked the reader to view the government not just from a close-up lens, but from one far removed--the suggestion is that surely from a more objective standpoint, one could see the problems with the government as it is.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team