English 220

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Discussion Questions: "Resistance to Civil Government"


1.      What role does the "state" play in your life? Do you have a contract or an "implied contract with the state? Consider "state" in its broadest sense: country, religion, business, school.

2.      Select any passage from "Resistance to Civil Government" that especially provokes, stuns, annoys, amuses, or confuses you. Discuss why you choose the passage.

3.      What do you owe the state? When you do have the right or even the obligation to rebel against the state? What does Thoreau say about this?

4.      What is more important? The state or the individual? What happens when we rephrase the question: "What is more important? Autonomy or interdependency? Community or society? Is any person above the law? Socrates asked, "Ought a man to do what he admits to be right, or ought he to betray the right? Is the concept of civil disobedience above the law?

5.      What is the difference between disobedience and dissent and civil disobedience?

6.      Does the United States have a tradition of civil disobedience? Indeed, does "rebellion" define our character?

7.      How is civil disobedience an assault on the democratic society, an affront to our legal order, and even an attack on our Constitutional government? How do you respond to Antigone's criticism of Creon: "I did not think your orders were so strong that you, a mortal man, could overrun the gods' unwritten and unfailing laws."

8.      Cite some contemporary issues that illustrate this apparent conflict between the state and the individual. Be prepared to discuss you position on each issue.

·        Should smoking be banned from public restaurants?

·        Should school funds be used to finance "fringe" student groups (a University of Wisconsin issue currently before the Supreme Court).

·        Should federal funds be used to finance art foundations or even National Public Radio?

·        Abortion

9.      Read Martin Luther King's essay, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Comment on any passage you find especially powerful.