In paragraph 1, why does Thoreau begin his essay with the distinction between the government and the people?"Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Thoreau makes it clear that he does not care for government at all.  He says that he believes,

That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

He believes that having a standing government is precisely as necessary and useful as having a standing army, and such a government is more likely to be abused and corrupted before it is actually used to enact the will of the people.  After all, a relatively small group of men can hold it hostage, so to speak, and do with it what they want rather than what the people desire.  More specifically, Thoreau wishes to make the point that it is not the government to which individuals are beholden; likewise, it is not the law that they are duty bound to follow.  Instead, it is each person's individual conscience that must dictate their behavior; it is our moral obligation to act with integrity and in accordance with the ideas that we know are right, whether they are legal or not.  Thoreau is about to launch an argument wherein he claims that we have a moral obligation to disobey the law if the law is unjust, so he must first establish why the government is not some infallible higher power. Instead, he will argue that the individual's conscience is in fact one's proper guide.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a Transcendentalist and advocate of the importance of the individual, Henry David Thoreau clarifies in the first paragraph of his essay "Civil Disobedience" that governments are merely "expedients," or means to an end, rather than separate entities on their own.  The government of any country is merely the "mode which people have chosen to execute their will," Thoreau asserts.

This first paragraph of Thoreau serves to state his belief that the citizens of a country must never become the servants of their government; their consciences must dictate to them what is right, not the government.

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

If men serve the state rather than their own consciences, Thoreau believes that they are but machines, not individuals.  Men must be "men first, and subjects afterward." The sanctity of the individual apart from any government must always be preserved.

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Civil Disobedience

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