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Transcendentalist Rhetoric in Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government

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    Transcendentalist Rhetoric in Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil GovernmentHenry David Thoreau’s writings are manifestoes of the Transcendentalist philosophy, which tackle various subjects from politics to economy or the environment.

    His essay, Resistance to Civil Government or Civil Disobedience as it is also known, reviews the American government and political life during the nineteenth century. Thoreau investigates and criticizes fundamental political issues, such as the American war in Mexico, the problem of slavery or the issue tax payment. Perhaps more than Thoreau’s other famous work, Walden, Resistance to Civil Government is liable to misinterpretation and controversy because of the radical ideas it contains. Thus, the essay is a piece of Transcendentalist rhetoric aimed at awakening the inner consciousness of the individual.

    Thoreau’s initiative is an extremely bold one: he attempts to persuade the reader that idea of government is fundamentally flawed and that the society should acknowledge the power of the individual conscience rather than the opinion of the mass. Therefore, in this essay, Thoreau applies Transcendentalism to the social and political life of his contemporary society. The essay is controversial precisely because it recommends civil disobedience and seems to encourage anarchy. It is not only that the life of the spirit should be acknowledged and lived by everyone, but it should also have precedence over the common laws of government.

    In order to persuade, the essay employs philosophical arguments and actual evidence of the ways in which even a democratic government can be unjust. Resistance to Civil Government employs the rhetoric specific to Transcendentalist writings: it urges the individual to acknowledge the truth of the self rather than that of tradition or law by witnessing the process of his own conscience. The statements that the essay makes are radical and powerful, attempting to awaken man to the voice of his own inner conscience. The rhetorical technique that Thoreau employs intends to shock the audience into a realization of a yet unrecognized truth.

    The arguments are persuasive despite the fact that they claim a thorough transformation of thought and perception.Thoreau’s essay is therefore compliant with all the main ideas contained by Transcendentalism. Inspired by Romanticism, Idealism and Platonism, Transcendentalism endeavored to raise awareness to the importance of the inner life of man. The main thesis of the transcendental philosophy is therefore that man should try to gain self-knowledge and stifle ignorance by an adherence to the essential truths in life, such as the human self and the human mind, nature and the universe itself.

    The transcendentalists perceived that the modern world was moving at a fast pace towards the exclusive authority of utility and materialism. Opposing this tendency, they strived to bring the life of the human spirit to the foreground. Thought has to be pushed farther so as to transcend the immediate, contingent reality and to touch the profounder truths. The self is the mark of all knowledge and of all divinity in man.

    For Thoreau, the equation of the world is very simple as it is founded on the idea of self-expression as the only recommended practice or mode of existence. In his view, the self should never trust any other authority than his own. Man has to trust himself and the power of his own spirit in order to maximize his potential. The self or the subjective entity was the receptacle of truth and not the objective reality.

    Thoreau rejects tradition and promotes originality of thought and subjectivism instead. The stubborn belief in accepted and traditional ideas leads, in his opinion, to the blunting of man’s perceptive and creative possibilities. The irrepressible tendency of the human mind is to measure everything by the standards of objectivity. Most men only credited the immediate and limited experiences of everyday life with importance or truth.

    Thoreau believes that the human mind should awaken to the profounder realities of life and the universe. This simple change would be apt to transform life on earth completely. All is needed is a change in the habits of perception: it is not the immediate, the palpable reality that should be experienced and understood but the greater life of the spirit.These ideas are implicit in Resistance to Civil Government.

    Here, Thoreau calls for a recognition of the power of individual conscience over that of the accepted objective reality. The strength of the essay comes from its extempore style and from the spontaneity and the directness of expression used by the author. Probably the most striking quality of Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government is the direct dialogue the author purposely establishes with the reader which, in its turn, invites to subjective reflection. Emerson managed to address directly the human spirit in its ineffable quality, without using any dogmatism.

    This is why the essays permit contradictions and paradoxes, while maintaining the overall effect. The ideas that the author expresses may seem too radical to be readily accepted. Therefore, Thoreau cannot uphold his ideas with actual proof or arguments but rather with ethical realities. As Richard Schneider advocates, Thoreau’s argument will only be accepted if the reader is persuaded by the supreme right to judgment that the individual conscience possesses:“The problem of Thoreau’s argument in ‘Civil Disobedience’ is that its effect on the reader is determined immediately and completely by whether or not the reader accepts Thoreau’s basic transcendentalist faith in the validity of conscience.

    If one believes that individual conscience is a more reliable test of a truth than the number of people who support it, than one easily follows Thoreau to his logical conclusion.”(Schneider 177).As Schneider points out, Thoreau’s essay is based on the assumption that the conscience of the individual is superior to the government obtained by vote. The power of the majority or the power of the objectively accepted truth is deconstructed by the Transcendentalist philosopher.

    His argument is that government can only work as an expedient at most and not as a real regulator of justice. Thoreau proceeds to deconstruct gradually all the ideas that fundament government in a democratic society, showing that voting can be wrong and unjust and that the citizen may be forced to submit to laws that are inherently flawed. He differentiates between the conscience and the legislator, showing that humanity and morality should be the first truth and not the social or political law: “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward” (Thoreau 98). Significantly, Thoreau deftly inserts rhetorical questions in his argument, in order to make the reader inquire into the logic of commonly accepted beliefs.

    He also states that he is aware of the fact that his ideas are likely to cause turmoil and disbelief because the individual is not ready to rely on himself only and because he is yet dependant on government to validate his thoughts and actions. The author’s strategy therefore is to direct the reader towards considering an alternative way of thinking about man’s place in the universe and the role of the individual.Without denying the importance of government, Thoreau speaks of a minimal governing power that would respect the individual voice. As he proposes, government is based on a set of limited rules and principles, where the voice of the majority usually decides.

    In his view, the voice of a single individual is as valuable as long as it states the truth. The way in which individual conscience can become empowered is by having a government that will allow man to express his own ideas and obey his conscience first and only afterwards the laws. While these ideas seem to be hazardous, they are actually valid in as much as they presuppose that the individual will be governed by his true conscience as a man and not by random impulses, interests and desires. It is important to note therefore that Thoreau sees individuality and subjectivism as based on the voice of humanity that speaks through every member of society and that is superior to abstract reasoning.

    In his opinion, voting is a good example of the way in which the voice of the majority could to express or defend the truth. When someone votes for the right, he can only make a feeble statement that reflects his own desires and views: “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail” (Thoreau 102). Nothing guarantees that the individual’s vote for the right will actually be effective.

    Instead of this strategy of government, Thoreau proposes one where the voice of the individual can be plainly heard and taken into account. It is the individual that has to be have power of decision and not the mass.Moreover, as Thoreau observes, the government in its present form addresses only general questions that become invalid on an individual level. He remarks that an individual has only something to do and cannot be concerned with everything and, because of this, he should not have to address the government for his needs: “A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me…” (Thoreau 105).

    The government can only provide a very broad an irrelevant frame of judgment while the individual can speak directly from his conscience and therefore be much closer to truth. Also, the laws and punishments that the state might exert on the individual prove equally inefficient. To support his view, Thoreau recalls his own experience with imprisonment due to a failure of paying his taxes. As he states, his experience taught him that the state can only capture his body and not his conscience and therefore its impositions and punishments are ineffective: “Thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.

    It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength” (Thoreau 106). Again, the conscience of the individual emerges as a supreme force that cannot be limited by the generalizations and the laws of civil government. Implicitly, Thoreau argues that a man should be primarily an individual and not a civilian that acts as a member of society only.Essentially, the individual should govern the state and not the reverse.

    The rights of man are the only ones that should be definitely respected by the government: “Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly” (Thoreau 112). Thoreau emphasizes that a truly enlightened state has to recognize the power of the individual and limit the power of government to the most practical needs and the basic administrative requirements. Anderson notes that this theory does not imply a dissident attitude towards social organization. Rather, Thoreau endeavors to determine the individual to act in concert with his own conscience and implicitly with the divine one: “The aim is not to be left alone by the state to do as one pleases but to get the state, as well as oneself, to act in concert with human and divine conscience” (Anderson 162).

    Thoreau makes an appeal to the voice of consciousness rather than to the voice of reason. He shows that government is worthless if it does not take into consideration the higher reality of the human, individual self.As Marshall advocates, Thoreau’s rhetorical device makes him range along the great philosophers, like Socrates. His critique of the social and political system is mean to point to the need of individual autonomy in the face of the powerful influences of society, tradition and government:“Thoreau’s critiques… play a vital role in his service to other people, much as other rhetorical devices were integral to ancient spiritual guidance.

    While, for example, Lucretius’ violent descriptions stand to shock his readers into seeing themselves more clearly and Socrates’ confusing analogies may leave Euthyphro more compliant, Thoreau’s critiques should help us reclaim and preserve our autonomy.” (Marshall 401)Thus, the essence of his essay is not to propose a certain type of government, but rather to emphasize the importance and symbolic autonomy of the individual. Unlike most philosophers, Thoreau does not uphold his ideas with a system or with a specific methodology.  His work does not conceptualize in the manner of a philosophical doctrine or treatise, but rather expresses through intuition.

    Moreover, the intuitive ideas expressed by Thoreau’s work appeal to the reader’s own intuition and therefore meet with a great resonance. The views expressed in Resistance to Civil Government could be attacked in a systematic work of philosophy, but their intuitive truth seems to surface with a permanent and forceful appeal to the human heart. Thoreau’s style is at once vehement and polemic, emphasizing his radicalism. In some ways therefore, his work is more akin to literature than it is to philosophy.

    Thus, it is important to note that his work is convincing without having the force of rational argument. Because of its radicalism, Thoreau’s philosophy may be contradicted or even blamed sometimes. However, it leaves an indelible intuition of the greatness and complexity of the human self. At the same time it can be said that the work lends itself to subjective interpretation, as it opens up the path for the freedom of self –expression.

    What characterizes, above all, the transcendental rhetoric of Thoreau is therefore the enthusiasm for self-discovery and for the life of the individual.As Smith shows, Transcendental writing emerges from everyday life but reveals a whole new range of meanings:“…Transcendental writing stems from everyday life, sprouting from an immediate, mundane reality into a surprising bouquet of meanings. Transcendentalists reveal natural objects and processes in a new light by linking them to familiar human feelings, realizations, or adventures, under the premise that when humans can see themselves in nature, they really see nature: the physical world is illuminated.” (Smith 71)Thoreau’s essay attempts to show the way in which the individual should perceive himself in the great scheme of the universe and also in the one of society.

    He proceeds from common experiences and common facts to show a new, illuminated view of reality and the importance of man. Thoreau condemns the way in which men and women squander their life and potential, unaware of their own soul and focusing strictly on material and immediate pursuits. He advocates therefore a spiritual awakening, where the individual can see himself detached from the ties of social life.The moot ideas of Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government have therefore a historical scope, having influenced at once the development of Western thought through the unprecedented promotion of the subjective over the objective and the American culture and civilization which derive most of their qualities and contradictions from the transcendentalists’ original strain of thought.

    ;Works Cited:Anderson, Douglas R. “Henry David Thoreau.” American Philosophers Before 1950. Ed.

    Philip            Breed Dematteis and Leemon B. McHenry. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 270.

    Detroit: Gale, 2003.Marshall, Mason. “Freedom through critique: Thoreau’s service to others.” Transactions of the    Charles S.

    Peirce Society: A Quarterly Journal in American Philosophy 41.2 (Spring 2005): 395(33).Schneider, Richard J. “Chapter 7: The Brave Man as Reformer: Reform Papers.

    ” Henry David   Thoreau. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 497. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.Smith, Cheryl C.

     “Writing like a transcendentalist.” Academic Exchange Quarterly 7.4 (Winter 2003): 67(5).Thoreau, Henry David.

    Resistance to Civil Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press,  1972.;;;;;

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