Thoreau's Wordplay in "Civil Disobedience"

James Ollen-Smith, '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Thoreau is good at placing familiar words into unfamiliar contexts, taking common phrases and twisting them slightly, and switching words within a phrase, in order to criticize and condemn.

For example:

I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe "That government is best which governs not at all."

The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government.

There are thousands who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep after them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today?

Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

Does Thoreau's manipulation of language work to his advantage? If so, how? Does his wordplay establish tighter links in his argument or does it actually convolute it and make it more confusing?


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Last modified 6 March 2002