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Themes in Civil Disobedience

In Government, Less Is More: Thoreau takes up the principles of the American colonists railing against their British rulers, as well as of the Anti-Federalists of the early days of the nation. Thoreau calls for less taxation, fewer meddlesome laws, and better policies at home and abroad. In general, Thoreau casts a skeptical gaze at the democratic process, judging that the policies and laws which receive the most votes are not necessarily the best, only the most popular.

Freedom and Responsibility for Individuals: Intertwined with Thoreau’s desire for a downscaled government is his desire for a more autonomous American populace. According to Thoreau’s diagnosis, obedience in all domains of life is a serious problem. Those who yield to federal law and procedure help to sustain a corrupt system. Those to yield their efforts to industry pay for their riches with their lives. Thoreau envisions an America in which its citizens are self-sufficient and self-reliant.

Themes Examples in Civil Disobedience:

Civil Disobedience

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"I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax...."   (Civil Disobedience)

This is a paradoxical statement, since Thoreau was the one who had not paid his poll tax. However, Thoreau uses contradiction to make the point that the punishment for tax-dodging is greater than the tax itself. His larger point is that to choose jail is better than to submit to the tax and thereby support an unjust government.

"before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined..."   (Civil Disobedience)

Thoreau claims to have felt free in jail, which is a contradictory sentiment because we assume prisoners to be captive. Thoreau's paradox suggests that freedom is a state of mind and an expression of principles, and therefore unrelated to physical confinement.

"It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State, than it would to obey...."   (Civil Disobedience)

This paradox subverts our typical assumptions about law-abiding behavior: by obeying the law, we avoid paying the penalty for disobeying it. In his contradiction, Thoreau claims that to obey a law he opposes would be to pay a penalty far worse than any loss of money or property because it would violate his conscience and self-respect.

"The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the “means” are increased...."   (Civil Disobedience)

Many assume that having more money makes life more fulfilling. This paradox suggests the opposite: in acquiring more money, life becomes less fulfilling because the opportunities to live a meaningful life diminish with the preoccupations of what can be bought and sold.

"But the rich man—not to make any invidious comparison—is always sold to the institution which makes him rich...."   (Civil Disobedience)

This sentence contains a contradiction; we assume that the rich are free and unable to be “bought” or controlled by others due to their great wealth. Thoreau’s use of paradox here reveals another subtle point: the wealthy cannot lead independent lives, since their industry binds them to society, which forces them to conform to its norms and expectations.

"Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters..."   (Civil Disobedience)

Thoreau constructs a literary paradox in this selection, highlighting a contradiction to make a point. We assume that those who disapprove of a government’s actions will not support that government nor stand in the way of reforming it. Through this contradiction, Thoreau claims that those who disapprove but still continue to support the government are actually its strongest allies and the most serious opposition to changing it.

"The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue to sustain it...."   (Civil Disobedience)

This is an example of a literary paradox. Thoreau’s claim appears contradictory; we assume that a virtue sustains positive qualities such as goodness, not errors or negative qualities. Through this contradiction, Thoreau reveals a subtle point: many problems in society remain because otherwise virtuous people lack interest and choose to not address them.

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