Rhetorical Analysis of Henry David Thoreau

Introduction

Essay “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau plays an important role in terms of understanding of the problem of the justification of a peaceful but illegal resistance to authorities. Thoreau was an uncompromising supporter of democracy and freedom, and defended the idea of connecting of morality and policies and contributing to the humanization of political activities. However, one of the most important topics highlighted in the essay is the nationalism. Henry David Thoreau with the help of the various rhetorical devices and strategies provides critical and detailed representation of the nationalism idea that motivates reader to reconsider this issue.

Rhetorical Devices

In general, Thoreau considers nationalism as an attempt of support state’s politics that determines further development of unjust social phenomena. Therefore, most of his rhetorical devices used in the analyzed article are directed at the depiction of the necessity of individual’s struggle against state’s intentions as the only way to the positive changes.

Figurative Speech

One of the major devices that maintain author’s idea and diminishes nationalism as the false position is simile, with help of which Thoreau provides negative connotations regarding state image in general. He compares one of the most important tools of democracy – voting – with “gamming, checkers or backgammon” underlining its uselessness in terms of making real changes in society, because it supports established order in the country and, by expressing nationalism in such way, people only conduct certain procedure maintaining government without real actions (Thoreau). Another important simile that reflects author’s attitude towards state and nationalism idea as a consequence is the following: “state… was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons” (Thoreau). The author shows that state does not deserve to be supported because of its limitless nature, which denies idea of nationalism as the outlook of the progressive individual.

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Another device that expresses author’s position regarding nationalism is metaphor. With its help, Thoreau expresses his opposition to the state and complete misunderstanding that in the context positions nationalism as an idea of the limited individuals. By saying “…they locked the door on my meditations… they were really all that was dangerous” Thoreau shows that his considerations regarding state order are the ones that challenge state’s policy and deny its support (Thoreau). Therefore, this metaphor supports Thoreau position against government that rejects individual believes.

By means of introducing the synecdoche “single living man”, the author underlines the powerlessness of government against an individual or group of people who are directed by the strong system of personal values (Thoreau). In this case, he opposes general and individual and states that nationalism is the prerogative of the faceless mass of people rather than true reformers.

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One of the strongest devices used by Thoreau in order to express his attitude towards state and deny nationalism idea is personification. By means of direct speech and certain image, the author pictures his relationships with the state as with the real person making his arguments more understandable. In the phrase “when I meet a government which says to me “Your money or your life,” Thoreau embodies the main conflict of the citizen with the state in form of the simple dialogue that contradicts principles of democracy and makes the idea of nationalism for the author impossible (Thoreau).

In order to deny nationalism as the way of support of government, the author introduces oxymoron. It helps to convey the image of the absurd state of things in the existing government that does not deserve to be maintained. By the way of combining the notions of the freedom and imprisonment, he names prisons “the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor” (Thoreau). In such a way, he shows the ridiculous policy of the state that is deprived of the common sense.

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By means of hyperbola, Thoreau expresses his strong conviction regarding the necessity to challenge “many millions of men” (Thoreau). Under this character named with hyperbola, the author means that part of citizens who follow nationalism and, as a result, with the quantitative advantage tend to maintain the slavery, unjust tax policy, and other negative tendencies.

In order to support his argument against nationalism, Thoreau appeals to the well-known aphorism. “That government is best which governs least” is used as the directive tool that shows author’s intentions regarding policy of government support in general (Thoreau). By means of this motto, he emphasizes the necessity of the individual force in terms of social changes that is opposite to the nationalism suggested by the government as the main source of transformations.

Syntactical Devices

One of the main syntactical devices that help the author to undermine the idea of nationalism are the rhetorical questions. Besides all range of the rhetorical questions that are used in order to doubt the rightness of the state policy, the most important is the following: “what…it behooves a man to do here in America today with regard to slavery…or…what new and singular code of social duties might be inferred?” (Thoreau). Although these questions are directed at Webster and seem to have the answer, they are the main reasons of the author’s despondence towards nationalism.

Considering the mentioned devices, the mood of the article is complex. On the one hand, the author uses declarative mood in order to express his attitude in terms of the consequences of nationalism and its uselessness. On the other hand, it can be described as an article with the imperative mood that call people to action and point their attention to the importance of the individual force in opposition to nationalistic one.

Rhetorical Strategies

Among the main strategies used by author, the category of pathos is the most obvious one. Firstly, the very personality of the author makes his argument credible. In addition, Thoreau uses testimony by means of the stories about experience that shows that his position against nationalism is not the demagogy but it is maintained by the real actions, such as his imprisonment because of the denial to pay taxes. He shows that even a little rebellion is the step in direction to the social changes.

The category of ethos is represented by means of the mentioning of such personalities as Confucius and Daniel Webster. With Confucius’s words Thoreau wants to distinguish the state that is governed by the personal interests and the one that is directed by the interests of the people. Although Webster’s position is represented not as the ideal system of values, it shows that Thoreau is competent in the current political system and ready to the dialogue that could improve social state.

The category of logos is depicted by means of the discussing of the penalty regarding tax payments. In such a way, the author shows that absurd policy determined by government is a real fact and not his subjective point of view. Therefore, nationalism, which in this case is represented by tax payment, as a support of the government is positioned as irrational thing.

Conclusion

Henry Thoreau praises civil disobedience as refusal to cooperate with the government until it will not cease to act in the interests of the slaveholders. In his article, he uses different rhetorical devices that help him to convey the imperative mood that makes reader reconsider the concept of nationalism as the way of government support. By means of the contradictions and unexpected literal devices, he underlines the necessity of the individual contribution to opposition to nationalism as the way of maintaining current policy that is expressed even by means of tax payments and undermines any social changes regardless one’s opinion.

 

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