Code: TP-12

"The Argumentative Structure of Disobedience"

            Most scholars who consider the structure of Thoreau’s writings confine themselves to matters of metaphor, language, and style. One noteworthy example is Linck C. Johnson’s book Thoreau’s Complex Weave, which describes the difficult process through which Thoreau wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. But people trying to make sense of Thoreau’s ideas on civil disobedience often overlook what might be called his other complex weave. Gandhi and King both preached a version of disobedience that has its roots in the writings of Thoreau. Both of these thinkers, however, ignore the argument’s subtleties, and instead of building directly from them, create arguments with complex moral force because Thoreau seems to be long on inspiration but short on normative claims. This paper will highlight the inner argumentative structure of "Resistance to Civil Government" and show that Thoreau’s other complex weave offers its own normative force that makes room for his ideas to be put into practice.

The image of Thoreau spending a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax and support slavery and the war with Mexico is an inspiring one. The scene, described in "Resistance to Civil Government" and "The Village" in Walden, stands as a beacon to later readers of Thoreau. King imitates just such a scenario when he accepts the consequences of his disobedience in Birmingham. But any attempt to put Thoreau’s ideas into practice without a deeper understanding of the argumentative structure of the essay ultimately is hollow; Thoreau’s arguments, for all of their splendor and complex construction, cannot be put into practice unless they imply some kind of normative force. Imagery, no matter how splendid, does not imply such force.

Thoreau sets the stage in his introductory paragraph. Most readers latch on to Jefferson’s quote, "That government is best which governs least," and Thoreau’s follow-up, "That government is best which governs not at all." Careful readers should note that Thoreau is not advocating anarchy here, for he follows this idea with the romantic notion that life in the state of nature might not be so nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes had pessimistically predicted. Still more careful readers will notice two arguments in this paragraph in the remaining lines:

"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. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure."1 (1)

Rendering the first argument in a standard schematized form, it might look like the following:

P1 A standing army is like a standing government; both have weighty objections.

P2 The objections to a standing army deserve to prevail.

C The objections to a standing government also deserve to prevail.

This simple argument by analogy isn’t that impressive in terms of form or content. In fact, it doesn’t appear to be cogent at all. Thoreau doesn’t tell us what the weighty objections are, nor does he give us the objections against a standing army that deserve to prevail. Further, he has no support for why these objections deserve to prevail.

Perhaps sensing this, Thoreau goes straight into his next argument. Again, in a standard schematized form, it might look like the following argument by example:

P1 The Mexican War is the work of a few individuals using the government as their tool — presumably most people would not consent to this.

C The government is liable to be abused before the people can act through it.

If Thoreau’s first argument wasn’t impressive, this one is worse. This appears to be a classic hasty generalization. Thoreau’s generalization is based on what seems like a pretty unrepresentative sample. After all, clearly the government acts in many ways unrelated to making war, and in these cases it might not be so clear that Thoreau’s conclusion follows. In Thoreau’s defense, the war with Mexico might represent the only class of relevant examples, or at least one of a very few relevant examples. Thoreau is not concerned with building roads, schools, or bridges.

            The real question, at least as far as this paper is concerned, is how might these arguments be functioning? As mentioned above, they set the tone. Readers need a context for Thoreau’s critique of the government, and at least the second argument provides this. Further, they illustrate the argumentative method and structure that Thoreau will employ throughout the essay. The second argument, ultimately, gives us the correct conclusion to the argument by analogy. Thoreau gives us this sentence: "The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it." Though he is talking about the government here, Thoreau’s use of ‘equally’ emphasizes the analogous relationship with the standing army. The reader would do well to heed this and interpret that the standing army is liable to be abused and perverted, and the war with Mexico is an example of this. But this flips the analogy on its head. It now looks like the following:

P1 A standing army is like a standing government; both have weighty objections.

P2 The standing army is liable to be abused and perverted (before the people can act through it).

C The government is liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.

This is a somewhat more cogent argument. It answers the first objection to the analogy above — Thoreau names a weighty objection. As to the second objection, why this objection deserves to prevail, the text isn’t explicit. It seems a fair inference to suggest the army’s mobilization at the hands of a few is analogous to the people not acting through the government before it is abused and perverted, but this could be more interpretation than is warranted. Regardless of the cogency, you can’t really attack one of these arguments without attacking the other. Thoreau has established the pattern he will follow for the rest of the essay: Thoreau’s other complex weave, then, is a tangled web of arguments that lean on each other for support in such a way that their full force is absent without each other.

Now that the main pattern is exposed, the main arguments should be easy to pull out. The heart of this piece is the section running paragraphs 18-20. And the heart of this section is paragraph 19. It runs as follows:

"As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not every thing to do, but something; and because he cannot do every thing, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the governor or the legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and, if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then? But in this case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory; but it is to treat with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appreciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better, like birth and death which convulse the body." (19)

This passage contains the central argument of this text, and perhaps even the central argument for Thoreau’s life. A straight schematization from the text might look something like this:

P1 A man cannot do every thing, he must do only something.

P2 Since a man cannot do every thing, it is not necessary that he do something wrong.

C Therefore, he ought to do the right thing.

The man who told us to simplify cuts across the rhetoric of disobedience with a pithy syllogism. No need for the talk of unjust laws (though Thoreau discusses them earlier in the essay), King’s difference made legal, or Gandhi’s satyagraha. Of the class of actions in the universe, some are right and some are wrong. We cannot perform every action. When we select the actions we do perform, why should we choose the wrong ones? The class of our actions ought to be a subset of the class of right actions.

            Because Thoreau ends with a normative claim, readers can flesh out his argument a bit more by putting it in what some logicians might call standard normative form, i.e., an argument culminating in a normative prescription to perform a particular action based on a value judgment of its consequences. Incorporating information from other paragraphs, the long version of this argument looks like the following:

  1. I can either do the right thing or the wrong thing. (Disjunctive premise.)
  2. If I do the right thing, I become a majority of one — I become a counter friction to stop the machine. If I do the wrong thing, I become an agent of injustice. (Consequences)
  3. It is better to be a counter friction to stop the machine than be an agent of injustice. (Value judgment.)
  4. Therefore, I ought to do the right thing. (Normative claim.)

Again, Thoreau doesn’t give us anything fancy. We adopt some of his language from paragraphs 18 and 20, namely, from the following sentences:

"… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine" (18).

"Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one already" (20).

This is the heart of the piece. The rest of the essay leans on this idea, supports the premises, or explains the idea herein. Like the arguments in the first paragraph, by itself, this argument doesn’t really amount to much. It seems lofty and rather impractical. After all, we don’t know which actions are the right ones, and we don’t know which actions require us to be the agents of injustice. Further, what does it mean to be a majority of one?

            If we put this argument at the center of the web, we soon see Thoreau’s other arguments weaving first around and then back to it. Consider, for example, Thoreau’s most explicit argument for breaking the law and rebelling, which comes in paragraph 8. Thoreau has just told the reader that most people of his day thought the American Revolution was justified because of the evils of the British machine, but slavery and the war with Mexico, they thought, do not justify such a revolution. Thoreau sees it differently:

"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 other 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." (8)

Sifting through his language, we get the following argument:

P1 A sixth of the population in ‘the land of the free’ is enslaved.

P2 A whole country (Mexico) is unjustly overrun by a foreign army (U.S.) and subject to military law.

P3. If these are the case, then it is not too soon ‘for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.’

C It’s time to rebel.

This is one of the few times Thoreau presents a deductively valid argument. Premises one and two can be put together by conjunction. Then we put that with premise three, and by way of modus ponens, we conclude that it is time to "rebel and revolutionize." Further, this argument could be used to announce the right circumstances for any act of disobedience, whether it is armed conflict or simply not paying taxes that support the war machine.

But on what grounds would this be the right thing to do? How do we move from the recognition that it is time to rebel to actually doing so? Really, if it isn’t clear that we ought to rebel, then who cares if it’s time to do so? Pared down, this might be seen as a kind of speech act. In fact, modern practitioners of civil disobedience might construct an argument that leads to this kind of conclusion and decide to act on that basis alone. Thoreau, however, seems to be simply diagnosing a problem with this passage. The reasoning of the argument is what supports his thought that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. Coupling this particular passage with Thoreau’s generally descriptive and empirical style, it is more reasonable to suggest Thoreau is not uttering a revolutionary performative. Rather, this is the problem of the practical syllogism. I might conclude do x, but I haven’t derived any proof that I should do x. Put simply, Thoreau has to move his rhetoric from talk to action. He does this with the normative argument described above. It provides us with the justification that we need to derive the ought from the is, so to speak.

If this simple argument is going to play such an important role, Thoreau should make it stronger. If he simply has flowery speech, then perhaps we ought to abandon the argument altogether. After all, if the argument has a low cogency, which it does on its own, then the rational thing to do is abandon it.

The intuitive place to begin a search for support would be to locate passages where Thoreau supports the claim that if we do the right thing, we become counter frictions to stop the machine or we become a majority of one. Thoreau has several passages to discussing the majority and even the machine. Nevertheless, Thoreau isn’t known for being intuitive. To skip to the punch line, Thoreau supports his main argument by weaving smaller arguments together to support his claim that if we do the wrong thing, then we become agents of injustice.

At paragraph four, Thoreau says, "Laws never made men a whit more just; and, by means of respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice." He presents us with a short, abductive argument explaining exactly what is going on when we simply respect the law: we become, or are, agents of injustice. This, too, is weak.

To support this argument, Thoreau owes us examples of men who simply respect the law and who are agents of injustice. In this same paragraph and the one following it, Thoreau gives us laundry list of different classes of men who fit this bill: soldiers — "colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all"; jailers; constables; legislators; politicians; lawyers; ministers; and the not so glamorous profession of Emerson’s neighbor Sam Staples, the tax collectors. Of the soldiers, jailers, and constables, Thoreau says, "In most cases, there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense" (5). He is not any more charitable to the rest of the members of his list: "Others … serve the State chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God" (5).

So now Thoreau has supported his only premise in the abductive argument with a series of examples. This presumably raises the cogency of the abductive argument, which he used to raise the cogency of his main argument. The chain of support, and how each example functions, looks like the following:

I. Abductive

P1 By means of respecting the law

C Men become agents of injustice. (4)

II. Arguments by example

P1 Soldiers — just do what they’re told

P2 Jailers — keep (just) men imprisoned

P3 Constables — enforce unjust laws

C Do not exercise their moral sense, only a respect for the law. (4 and 5)

P1 Legislators — making Fugitive Slave Act

P2 Politicians — same reason

P3 Lawyers — prosecuting those who break FSA

P4 Ministers — by telling people to obey the state

P5 Tax man — by following orders rather than respecting neighbor

C Serve with their heads (respect the law) — without making moral distinctions, each is as likely to serve the devil. (5)

All of this seems elementary and too linear for Thoreau really to be weaving anything. But the careful reader can take these arguments and construct one final argument that illustrates just how closely all of these ideas are related. Thoreau claims that if we become agents of injustice, then we respect only the law. Those who respect only the law are not using the free exercise of their moral sense. Those who fail to exercise their moral sense — legislators, politicians, and the like — end up doing the wrong thing. By means of a drawn out hypothetical syllogism, Thoreau concludes that if you become, or are, an agent of injustice, then you are doing the wrong thing. And this is the reciprocal version of the premise in the normative argument that Thoreau is trying to support. In the process of supporting various ideas to raise the cogency of the premise in question, Thoreau has derived a biconditional relation between being an agent of injustice and doing the wrong thing. This isn’t so far fetched, given the tone and language Thoreau uses in this essay.

This relationship closes the web of Thoreau’s argument. If critics try to pull at the arguments by example, say, by showing that not all soldiers simply respect the law, they still have to treat the hypothetical syllogism with a lengthy objection. If they begin to attack the syllogism, they’ll have to treat the examples and the abductive argument. This isn’t to say that a sustained criticism of Thoreau’s position is impossible, but opponents of his claim have quite a bit of work to do because of its structure.

The other side of the normative argument is what follows from doing the right thing. The reader has two ways to support this claim, neither of which I will discuss here. The first is a reconstruction of tiny arguments that support the idea and would weave back toward what follows from doing the right thing. This would be similar to what I have done above. The second, and more philosophically challenging, would be to develop a theory of action that Thoreau begins to sketch. Such a theory, starting from the pieces in this essay, would ultimately have to conclude that only actions that are free exercises of the moral conscience count as real actions. Such a reconstruction is far beyond the scope of the current paper.

Thoreau’s weave of arguments offers the reader and the participant in disobedience a foundation for action that relies not on higher laws or greater philosophical systems for its justification. Rather, Thoreau’s central claim, that we need not do the wrong thing, rests on a series of empirical observations. He deduces from these observations and the contemporary mood that doing the wrong thing makes someone an agent of injustice. The structure is what lends the argument compelling normative force for any practitioner of disobedience. For example, King could have used the same method detailing the injustices that spawned the civil rights movement and the need for reform. He could have used Thoreau’s structure, not simply his ideas, to derive justification for nonviolent resistance. This alone should convince the reader that disobedience can be morally right. Those who ask for more aren’t reading carefully enough.

1 To make references easier on readers with different editions, I shall follow Stanley Cavell's convention of citing the paragraph of quotations rather than page numbers.