Rhetorical Questions in "Civil Disobedience"

Nathan Deuel '02, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In the first paragraph of "Civil Disobedience," we confront a little-known argument for a ubiquitous dictum. Thoreau guides the reader from a chilling pomposity -- "I should like to see it" -- to his famous suggestion that government rules best least. He then twists several sentences in masterful turns of disciplined logic. Finally, he grounds his argument in a war contemporary to the essay's publication. I'm convinced.

Here, however, I stumble as critic. Ruskin? Swift? Johnson? These are crackpots compared to Thoreau, at least judged by fame in the American theatre of luminary personalities. His is so fundamental to my American brain, and -- I think -- our collective consciousness, that a critical perspective is elusive. We glide over his words, sentences, and paragraphs easily, as if in a warm bath. What did he do so well? What strategies were so effective for readers in 1849, and then now for our class? Two facts: he attacks and consoles readers, and he admits his arguments have a "strong dose of himself." Reading these essays today, the arguments seem obvious, subliminal. To what degree can we parse from our reactions to his essays our own subconscious patriotism? His success is not a pure function of his youth in history compared to Ruskin and company. His is a brand of rhetoric far more comfortable even than Wolfe's or even Didion. How did he do it?

Backup questions: Thoreau often evokes a pastoral image of the modern condition. Does he deliberately place his arguments into landscapes chosen for their wildest appeal? If so, do we detect here the beginning of Thoreau the salesman? Was Thoreau a writer hyperconscious of audience and the wisdom of not only appealing to the lowest denominator, but setting his stories in the denominator's front yard? Broadly, how does place function for Thoreau?

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Last modified 6 March 2002