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Thoreau's concept of "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already" in "Civil Disobedience."

Summary:

Thoreau's concept in "Civil Disobedience" means that an individual who holds a morally superior position compared to others holds significant authority, even if they are alone. This idea emphasizes the power of personal conscience and moral integrity over majority rule, suggesting that one person's righteous stance can outweigh the views of the majority.

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What does Thoreau mean by "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already" in paragraph 20?

In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau asserts the right of an individual to follow his or her conscience to do what he or she feels is right, even though the state may not agree with him or her. In this paragraph, he supports his assertion by referring to abolitionism, the campaign to end slavery. He believes that abolitionists should not support the state, either by fighting in the army or by paying taxes. He also states that abolitionists should not wait until they are in the majority because they are in the right morally to protest slavery. Instead, if someone follows his or her conscience and believes that slavery is wrong, that person already constitutes a majority, meaning that person already has the right to protest the government's actions and refuse to fight in the army or pay taxes. If one is morally right, he argues, that person does not need to wait until others agree with him or her before acting. 

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What does Thoreau mean by "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already" in paragraph 20?

Referencing what he called "the machine of government," Henry David Thoreau, in his treatise On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, declared that it was a moral and practical imperative for the individual to confront the wrongs committed by the state.  Thoreau was exceedingly skeptical of government and of its institutions, and believed fervently that it is the responsibility of the individual to take it upon himself to resist policies and practices that run counter to the government's own assertions of good intentions.  As he wrote in his essay, "If it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law."  As Thoreau continues to discuss the moral imperatives of civil disobedience, he reaffirms the importance of the individual in addressing the wrongs that arise from misguided policies.  It is in this vein that he wrote the following:

"I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they 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, again, emphasizing the need to resist unjust policies and practices, including those policies codified in law.  Just as the Founders asserted in drafting the Constitution, the imperative of preventing a tyranny of the majority over the minority was as important to a democratic form of government as the need to prevent a tyranny of the minority over the majority.  The numbers, in other words, are less important than the morality. A "majority of one," then, refers to the inordinate influence that can be brought to bear against unjust laws by the single individual determined to resist those laws' application.

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What does Thoreau mean by "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already" in paragraph 20?

In this statement by Thoreau, he is saying that the one person who is on the right side of the question counts for more than all the people who are on the wrong side of the question or issue.  If you are correct in your belief, your belief would be more important and be a majority of one over whatever number of people are against you or on the other side of the issue.  Thoreau believed that personal beliefs rightly held were more important than any government rule, and thus he promoted civil disobedience against any rule which he considered wrong.  As a writer, Thoreau was a powerful voice for following an individual's own conscience and beliefs no matter what the government wanted the public to believe.

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In "Civil Disobedience," what does Thoreau mean by "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already?"

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 "Civil Disobedience," what does Thoreau mean by "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already?"

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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In "Civil Disobedience," what does Thoreau mean by "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already?"

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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In "Civil Disobedience," what does Thoreau mean by "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already?"

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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What does Thoreau mean when he says that "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already"?

Thoreau is making the point that, just because a majority of people believe that something is right, it doesn't mean that it is. There are countless examples in history that could be used in support of this argument. Take slavery, for instance. The vast majority of Southern whites believed it was right, but was it? Most people would argue not, and Thoreau would agree with them. If one person in such a society were to stand up and say "This is wrong," immediately they would be in a majority of one; a moral, not a democratic majority. And if this moral majority believes that they are in the right, then they are fully entitled to pursue civil disobedience as a strategy of resistance against unjust laws, however many people may have voted for them.

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What does Thoreau mean when he says that "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already"?

Thoreau's central argument in Civil Disobedience is that when the laws of the state conflict with a higher moral law, it is the moral responsibility of the individual to obey the higher law. This may be seen as conflicting with the democratic principle of majority rule, however, in which the laws of the state are established with the consent of the majority. With this statement, Thoreau is claiming that individual conscience is supreme, and that a moral society can only exist when individuals are willing to violate civil law, or, in his words, to let their lives be "a counter friction to stop the machine." This was because the state was often incompetent to end such systemic evils. The best a person can do is to live by their own moral code:

What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn. As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone.

For Thoreau, civil disobedience took the form of refusing to pay taxes on the grounds that he was opposed to American participation in the Mexican War.

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