|“Civil Disobedience” Reading Questions Answer Key
Henry David Thoreau
(1) 1. By putting “civil” in his title, Thoreau may be trying to qualify that any disobedience should be nonviolence.
(1) 2. According to Thoreau, what is the very best kind of government?
“…one that governs not at all…”
3. Do you believe it is possible that we can have the type of government Thoreau wants? Why or why not?
(1) 4. What is the definition of government?
“…the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will…”
(2) 5. What is the key to having a government that men want and respect?
They must think of what they want; they must be introspective
(3) 6. What makes a majority (i.e. a government)?
A group that is physically strongest
(3) 7. If a government is based on a majority, what can it NOT have?
(3) 8. “We should be men first, and subjects afterward. What is Thoreau trying to say here? What is the difference between the two and why is that so important to a well-run government and society?
(3) 9. What is the rule/obligation by which Thoreau lives?
Do what he thinks is right
(4) 10. Why does Thoreau look down on soldiers, captains, generals, etc?
They have an “undue respect for law;” they follow even if they don’t believe in what the law is or if it goes against common sense
(4) 11. Why does he dehumanize them?
They don’t use their minds or their conscience
(5) 12. What does Thoreau mean when he says, “…but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.”?
Since they don’t think, they aren’t important; they can be thrown away because unthinking men can be replaced easily
(5) 13. What happens to men who live and govern with their consciences?
They are vilified and treated as enemies
(6) 14. What examples does he cite of conscientious men that were made the enemies of society (but were later vindicated and are now held in high esteem)?
Christ, Copernicus, Luther, Washington, Franklin
(7) 15. According to Thoreau, what is the ultimate condition in which you are to break a law?
“…if it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another…”
(8) 16. What is Thoreau trying to express when he writes, “ay, if one honest man, in the State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.”
Even the smallest gesture can have the biggest impact and make all the difference; one man can change the world
(9) 17. Where is the true place for a just man? Why?
Prison; this is a form of peaceful revolution (a minority is powerless when it conforms—he is not conforming and sending a peaceful by rebellious message)
(10) 18. Describe Thoreau’s feelings in jail. Is he angry about being there? Happy? Sad?
He doesn’t feel confined and sees the positive attributes of prison; he feels there is a better use of his time; he pities the state that thinks prison is a threat to conscience men and that putting them in prison will stop them
(11) 19. What does the State value in a man (what does it target)?
Values the body; targets a man’s sense, intellect, and morals
(11) 20. Describe the metaphor Thoreau uses at the very end—what is his final message?
A man is compared to a plant; to use his mind and conscience is man’s true nature, so not doing so will cause his death