Thoreau says, "government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient." Explain this idea by paraphrasing the sentence. Give one example of government expediency and one example of government inexpediency.
Governments are at best a means to an end: and the ultimate end of governance is to create a more just society for individuals. Most governments and all governments sometimes get in the way of justice and individualism, rather than promote these values. An example of government expediency might be allowing abolitionists to express their unpopular minority view and exercise their rights under the First Amendment. Inexpediency is exemplified in the many compromises enacted by Congress that allowed slavery to continue.
Highlight what you feel are the two most important sentences in this paragraph. What does Thoreau say in this paragraph about government interference?
Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. ..The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.
The real force behind American excellence is the American people, not the American government, and governmental institutions should not get in the way of the rights and will of the people who founded and make up the government. Individuals are more important than institutions.
3. In paragraph 1, Thoreau seemed to be advocating anarchy when he said, "That government is best which governs not at all." What does he say here that shows he really doesn't want to immediately abandon all forms of government?
If individuals are left to their own devices, then only the strongest will rule, and 'might will make right.' "After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest."
4. (a) Thoreau says, "A government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice." Why not? Give an example of a situation in which majority rule might result in an injustice to someone.
Slavery, active suppression of dissenting political voices during wartime (and the Cold War), and prohibiting gay marriage have all been supported by a majority of the American populace, at different historical time periods.
4. (b) What does Thoreau mean when he writes that "we should be men first and subjects afterward"?
The individual's obligations to humanity are more sacred than his or her obligations to the state.
4. (c) What is wrong with our having an "undue respect for law"?
The principles of justice are more important than the letter of the law. The law is a means to an end, the end of justice, not a sacred thing itself.
5. What is the distinction between men and machines according to Thoreau?
Men exercise discretion and judgment, machines merely obey.
8. What does Thoreau say here about slavery and the Mexican War?
"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." A war fought upholds the liberty to have slaves is hardly a just war!
9. William Paley was an English theologian and philosopher. What is Paley's argument and how does Thoreau counter-argue?
Paley argues that a certain amount of obedience is necessary to preserve society, and if following one's conscience will do more harm than good to society, one should forgo the action. Thoreau argues that some evils, like slavery, are so great, that if society falls apart when they are undone, that society was not worth preserving.
10. Why do people who agree that slavery and war are unjust do nothing to stop it?
They do so by making the excuse that progress is slow: to take real action would impinge upon their own comforts and reputations.
11. Why is voting alone not enough to stop injustice?
Voting is distanced -- one makes a 'bet' a politician will do something, but he or she may not.
13. (a) The first sentence of this paragraph contains the key to Thoreau's philosophy. Paraphrase that sentence.
The primary duty of every human being is to eradicate injustice and everything else in life is secondary.
13. (b) Thoreau says that people may be taking part in a war even if they aren't soldiers. How is that possible?
By doing nothing to stop injustice, they perpetuate it.
14. Paraphrase, in one or two sentences, this paragraph.
It is a moral obligation of every human being to fight against injustice. Obligations are positive, not negative: it is not enough to say 'I am not unjust in my actions' if injustice is being perpetrated by another person and you do nothing to stop that injustice.
16. Why do men "think they ought to wait until they have persuaded a majority to alter [unjust laws]"? Do not simply write that it's because "the remedy would be worse than the evil." What does that mean? How could the remedy be worse?
Many men fear sedition. The remedy being worse than the evil is exemplified in the French Revolution: injustice was being perpetrated but anarchy and bloodshed prevailed during the revolution.
17. What is Thoreau's assertion in this paragraph?
Real radicals who change the world are crucified, while moderate compromisers are praised.
18. (a) In this paragraph, Thoreau uses the metaphor of the friction and a machine when talking about government and injustice. Explain this metaphor. What is the machine? What is the friction?
The friction is civil disobedience: people argue that civil disobedience will cause the machinery of government and society to malfunction. If that is the case, so be it, says Thoreau. Let the machine break, as it is not doing its job to promote freedom for all people.
18. (b). Thoreau tells us there may be times when we are justified in breaking the law. What specifically are the circumstances under which this may occur?
If the state provides no mechanism to change its unjust laws, then individuals are justified in breaking those laws.
19. Summarize the main idea of paragraph 19.
People spend too much time talking about injustice, rather than taking risks that might impinge upon the comfort of their lives but would actually be effective as actions.
20. What does Thoreau want Abolitionists in Massachusetts to do?
To utterly withdraw from government and not pay their taxes until justice is done.
21. What, according to Thoreau, would it take to get rid of slavery in the United States? Why would this work?
If people refused to pay taxes and support the government, change would be imperative as the jails would be filled with respectable men, and society would cease to function without them.
22. Why is the "true place for a just man...a prison"?
Only by engaging in acts of civil disobedience and flooding the jails can change be realized -- if one is not in prison, one is not pressing society to manifest change.
24. What does Thoreau mean by "It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State, than it would to obey"?
Being in prison is less uncomfortable than living a lie and supporting an unjust government.
25. Why did Thoreau not want to pay the church tax demanded of him?
He had not voluntarily joined it: "Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined."
26. (a). In this paragraph, Thoreau talks about his imprisonment and seems to find the entire experience almost humorous. Why?
Contrary to the horrific image of terrible and uncivilized people, the prison has a friendly atmosphere, and there is a kind of amicable relationship between the prisoners and their jailors.
26. (b). At the end of paragraph 26, Thoreau compares the state to "a lone woman with her silver spoons." Explain that comparison. How has this experience affected Thoreau's attitude toward the state?
Thoreau has lost respect for the state -- he says it is like a woman who only has a few good spoons, and suspects EVERYONE, even the most moral people, of trying to steal them. The state fears all dissenters are trying to overthrow it, rather than make it live up to its ideals.
27. Explain the metaphor in the…