Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

Civil Disobedience book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What reasons and evidence does Thoreau offer to justify his view that the people who truly serve the state are those who often resist it?

Expert Answers info

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseCollege Lecturer, Professional Writer

bookB.A. from Ferris State University

bookM.A. from Western Michigan University

bookJ.D. from University of Michigan Law School

calendarEducator since 2020

write95 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Law and Politics, and History

In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau argues that the only government humans are obligated to obey is one that behaves in a moral and ethical manner—a government that does what is right, not merely what is useful to it. A government, however, doesn't have a conscience of its own. Its conscience comes from the consciences of the people.

Yet, says Thoreau, most people do not use their conscience to make decisions. Instead, they let the government tell them what to do. And sometimes, people do what they're told even when their conscience tells them not to do it.

As an example, Thoreau describes a line of soldiers marching into war. The soldiers go where the government tells them to go and fights who the government tells them to fight. If you asked the individual soldiers how they felt about the war, however, Thoreau claims "they have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined."

To carry out government commands that a person's conscience says are wrong, Thoreau argues, that person has to silence or cut out their own conscience. As a result, they're contributing to the state—but with their actions only, not with their minds, hearts, or wills. Thoreau argues that people who do this are hardly "people" at all: they become mere objects for the government to use as it will.

By resisting immoral government demands, however, a person throws the entire weight of their human will and conscience behind their behavior. Thus, says Thoreau, the resister's actions give the resister's entire humanity to the state. The resister is not an object, but a person, contributing their conscience to ensure the government acts morally and ethically.

In essence, Thoreau argues that the people who truly serve the state are those willing to use "tough love." They're willing to put their foot down and say "no" when they see the government trying to achieve its ends by immoral or unethical means. Instead of switching off their conscience to obey the government, they commit their conscience to making the government do better.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial