What metaphor does Thoreau use to describe the army in "Resistance to Civil Government"?

Expert Answers

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

When Henry Thoreau’s essay was first published in 1849, it was titled “Resistance to Civil Government.” In 1866, four years after his death, it was published again and re-named “Civil Disobedience,” even though Thoreau never used this phrase in the essay. However, this is the title and the nonviolent protest strategy that we associate with him today.

Thoreau was a creative writer who loved to use subtle puns, wordplay, and literary devices whenever he could. The first paragraph of the essay holds the answer to your question. It reads, “The standing army is only an arm of the standing government.” This sentence is a good example of Thoreau’s deliberate approach to writing. He was able to repeat and reverse the order of the words “standing” and “arm/army.” Doing so had the added benefit of describing the army as an arm of the government, which it certainly is. This is a metaphor and could also be considered a pun. It compares the government with a human body that has arms; and one of them is the army. On the other hand, Thoreau uses the word “standing” in two different ways. A “standing army” is one that is maintained by a government on an ongoing basis. The “standing government” is the one that is currently in place. The first one is permanent, the second one is temporary. This is an amusing twist of meaning in one word.

The sentence contains only eleven words. But Thoreau crafted it with purpose and chose his words carefully. His writing is full of these intricate, creative examples.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial