Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is a famous and well-regarded example of effective rhetoric. In this essay, Thoreau used all three corners of the rhetorical triangle to outline what he saw as the problems with the government of the time, 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 with the cost being widespread injustice and corruption, which Thoreau opined were the chief products manufactured thereby. Governments are by their nature, according to Thoreau, generally more harmful than helpful, although he did profess a respect for the concept of government, and wished for a better government that does more to respect the rights of individuals and liberty as a whole. Specifically, Thoreau spoke about the Mexican-American War, poll taxes, slavery, and other laws that he saw as unjust. In regards to these topics specifically and government in general, Thoreau attempted to persuade his audience, which was comprised of students in Concord, Massachusetts, to his point of view with skillful use of the rhetorical triangle, which is to say through the careful application of both logical and emotional arguments, combined with ethos in the form of his academic reputation.
As an experienced speaker, Thoreau began with an example of pathos, “I heartily accept the motto, — "That government is best which governs least"” (230). This is an effective statement because it is emotionally appealing, easy-to-remember, and was likely to interest and ‘hook’ his audience. Thoreau followed this with an example of logos on the topic of actions, stating, “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?” (234). Many people have never even considered the idea of questioning authority, so by offering this query, Thoreau led his audience into a logical stance from which they could begin to interrogate the premise of government that they previously accepted without such thought.
Next, Thoreau returned to an appeal to pathos in this statement: “Why does [government] always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?” (234). Thoreau chose these names carefully, in order to appeal to the emotion and self-love of his audience members by offering a slate of historical and religious heroes for comparison to themselves. As another example, Thoreau later stated that, “All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil... 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” (230). With this statement, Thoreau offers an appeal to the moral sense of his audience, specifically by using emotionally weighted descriptors while at the same time offering a logical progression to justify his advocated disobedience. This statement also acted as a call to action, further inspiring the emotions of his audience.
Once Thoreau persuaded his audience to consider and then accept his ideas, he cleverly addressed the consequences of his advocated law-breaking by using an emotional argument to lessen the stress of idea: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison… It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; [prison is] the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor” (236). With this statement, Thoreau turned a normally frightful and shameful consequence into almost an award, or a badge of honor. Finally, Thoreau addressed the nominal authority of the government, as an antithesis to be cleverly countered and then set aside. With this aim in mind, Thoreau stated, “those whose lives are by profession devoted to the study of these or kindred subjects, content me as little as any. Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it… They may be men of a certain experience and discrimination, and have no doubt invented ingenious and even useful systems, for which we sincerely thank them; but all their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits. They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and expediency” (237). With this, he lays out a logical argument why the common man is less biased than the politicians to whom we normally leave such thoughts and decisions, and helps his audience overcome their ingrained desire to follow such leaders.
In these examples and still other places, Thoreau skillfully moves between pathos and logos, using imagery and symbolism to appeal to the audience’s emotions, logic to appeal to their minds, and his own authority to supplant those statesmen with whom he so heartily disagreed. Thoreau’s methods were especially effective at persuading his audience to his point of view; the audience members who prefer hard logic heard more than enough to be persuaded, those audience members who were not inclined to be logical were still be affected by the emotional argument, and those who were not inclined towards either would still have been impressed by Thoreau’s status. In the end, his audience accepted Thoreau’s ideas, and his lecture became an essay that was printed and reprinted during his lifetime and long after his death. It is true that part of the impetus towards today’s reprinting is because the zeitgeist of our modern times happens to agree with Thoreau’s older arguments, but even now and especially then, the popularity of his essay includes the persuasiveness of Thoreau’s rhetoric. As such, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is a good example of persuasive speech and effective use of the rhetorical triangle.
Thoreau, Hendry David. Walden Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1966. Print.