Rhetorical Questions in "Civil Disobedience"

Jon Segal, Graduate Student in American Civilization at Brown University, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In several places in Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," the author, instead of making a forthright statement, decides to use a the device of a rhetorical question, that is, a question that is made to further an argument, not to be answered either in the text or by the reader.

In the following passages, Thoreau stacks one question atop another, eventually building, rhythmically to a climax before beginning a new paragraph, with a slightly different argumentative tack:

Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves--the union between themselves and the State--and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury? Do not they stand in same relation to the State that the State does to the Union? And have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting the Union which have prevented them from resisting the State?

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? 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. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

How does the use of the device of the rhetorical question differ in these two instances? Do the questions motivate different responses in the reader?

Is this an effective device? Would Thoreau's argument have been better served, espcially in the second passage, by replacing the questions with statements of fact? What is gained, rhythmically and tonally, by grouping questions together in this manner?


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses H. D. Thoreau

Last modified 6 March 2002