Wooden Men and the Use of Lists

Rachel Aviv '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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In "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," Thoreau argues against the tradition of the American government. He takes an anarchist position, declaring that the best government is no government at all. One of his chief arguments against government is that the law degrades men -- turning them from thinking, conscious men into obedient, mechanical subjects. In two particularly moving passages, Thoreau describes the result of such undue obedience:

1. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonels, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart.

2. The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.


In both passages, Thoreau creates long lists of different types of citizens who serve the state ("soldiers, colonels, captain, privates, powder-monkeys" and "standing army, militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc."). In both of the lists, there is no logical order or hierarchy to the type of citizens listed. What is the effect of creating such a list? How do these long lists of people further Thoreau's argument that men have been turned into machines, marching against their will?

In the first paragraph, the sentence not only contains a list (the list of the various types of soldiers), but it reads like a list itself. It drags on an on, piling on short clauses. In what way does the rhythm of the sentence complement the sentence's content? Is this an effective device?

In the final clause of the second paragraph, Thoreau equates those who blindly serve the American government with "wooden men." Earlier on, in the first paragraph of the essay, Thoreau says that the government is a "wooden gun to the people themselves." Do the two uses of "wooden" contradict each other? If not, how do the two metaphors relate?

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Last modified 7 October 2003