Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thoreau's Use of the Rhetorical Triangle in 'Civil Disobedience'


From an in-class writing exercise on rhetoric from Honors Composition II:

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience seeks to outline the problems with our current mode of government and with government in general due to their inherent lack of respect for the individual, instead preferring to maintain the status quo of the whole, even at the expense of injustice and corruption, which Thoreau opines are the chief products manufactured thereby. Governments are, according to Thoreau, generally more harmful than helpful, although he does profess a respect for the concept of government, and wishes for a better government that does more to respect the rights of individuals and liberty as a whole.

Thoreau uses ethos, by way of pathos and logos, to persuade his audience of his arguments. As an example, Thoreau stated, while speaking on actions, the following:

“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 be on the alert to point 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?” (Thoreau 234).

In this, Thoreau provides a logical background from which the audience can begin to question the premise of government that they previously accepted, and offers historical heroes as an appeal to pathos. As another example, Thoreau later stated the following:

“All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.” (Thoreau 230).

In this, Thoreau offers an appeal to the moral sense of his audience, specifically by using emotionally weighted descriptors, which is an example of pathos, while at the same time offering a logical progression to justify his advocated disobedience. Combined, Thoreau’s skillful use of pathos and logos become ethos.

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