Essay on Civil Disobedience Rhetorical Devices

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Civil Disobedience Rhetorical Analysis

American transcendentalist and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, wrote the essay “Civil Disobedience” in response to slavery and Americans' involvement in the Mexican-American War. Thoreau practiced what he preached, spending the night in jail for non-payment of taxes in protest of the Mexican-American War. Throughout his essay, he shares his idea, which is “That government is best which governs least;” (Thoreau, 1) by using rhetorical language along with his own experiences to persuade others to come around to his way of thinking. Thoreau was not trying to target a specific audience but to make a populist appeal in favor of less government. Thoreau drew upon his own experience to make his story relatable to his audience. Thoreau’s use of diction, tone, appeals, and figurative language was to make it appeal to his readers by making them entertaining and sincere.

Thoreau took his case to the public by reciting it in public in Concord. Hoping to rally people to his side, he used personal experience and the use of rhetorical questions. Giving the audience the chance to decide for itself whether or not it agreed with him. In his tone, he shows anger and indignation at the government for the hysteria that surrounded the Mexican-American war and does not feel a citizen should have to pay a tax to support something they find morally troubling. His diction created a sense of urgency and treated this as a problem with the government that needed to be solved immediately. With this diction along with an angry, passionate, and independent tone, he could persuade his audience for others to turn to his way of thinking. In Thoreau's essay, he uses a momentous and confident tone with his statements such as, “For the government is an expedient, by which man would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it”. (Thoreau 1) This presents Thoreau’s contempt for government and the moral question of whether one should be forced to be taxed for something one finds morally repugnant. His diction and tone are one of indignation and he speaks from personal experience and is relatable to his audience. Being imprisoned gave him a unique perspective on government and its workings. Hoping to capture his audience, he vies to make it immediate and timely. In this manner, Thoreau’s diction and tone are to appeal to his audience's sense of right and wrong.

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Thoreau’s use of appeals in his essay was also a major part of persuading, garnering sympathy, and providing a logical argument for his cause. Pathos is used to evoke strong emotional responses from either the listener or the reader. Thoreau makes a powerful appeal to both patriotism and widely held religious beliefs of the time. By evoking both the Bible and the Constitution, “They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility…” (Thoreau 14), he appeals to his audience's prevailing belief systems. Along with a powerful use of pathos, Thoreau also utilizes ethos to appear credible to his readers. Thoreau himself had refused to pay the poll tax for six years due to his stance on slavery. He also was involved in many abolitionist groups and helped slaves escape their servitude. “Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil.” (Thoreau 6), this quote illustrates Thoreau’s strong moral stance on issues. His argument about being government should not force people to give up their moral beliefs. He also uses logos to declare his argument and how the government should represent the wants and needs of its people. Appealing to his audience's common sense gives his writing a more populist appeal.

Thoreau’s use of figurative language was another way to gain his reader's attention. By utilizing different forms of figurative language, he can put that to use to get his point across about the relationship the government has with its people. His use of metaphor such as comparing the government to a machine. The machine can also be seen as a metaphor for a soul-crushing bureaucracy. Thoreau also uses simile when he describes jail as, “like traveling to a far country”. In this way, he evokes his readers' imaginations and is much more literary than the standard political rant. Thoreau’s use of paradox is evident in his assertion that one must be willing to accept the consequences of standing up to unjust laws by breaking them. Along with his use of other figurative language, he adds personification by comparing the government to an actual human being. By doing this, he is allowing his readers another way to think about the government as a very personal thing rather than some faceless entity. Thoreau operates figurative language into his essay to present a more literary and richer experience for the reader.

Thoreau was a man of grand passion who advocated for a simple life and the freedom to be left alone. “Civil Disobedience” is still referenced today and was cited by Gandhi as a significant influence on him. His use of the rhetorical triangle and figurative language makes his work accessible to anyone. Thoreau used rhetorical devices to give the readers a unique perspective and get them thinking about the cause he is so emotional about. Thoreau was a common man, writing for the common man, and he used a full palette of literary devices at his disposal. The passion of his conviction comes through in the prose. Thoreau’s passion and emotion are infused in all of his writing and whatever flaws he may have as a writer, it is more than made up for by his enthusiasm and the unwavering conviction to his cause.

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Essay on Civil Disobedience Rhetorical Devices. (2024, February 23). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
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