Comparing Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Comparing Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail

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Comparing Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and Martin Luther King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail


The two essays, "Civil Disobedience," by Henry David Thoreau, and "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," by Martin Luther King, Jr., effectively illustrate the authors' opinions of justice. Each author has his main point; Thoreau, in dealing with justice as it relates to government, asks for "not at once no government, but at once a better government. King contends that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Both essays offer a complete argument for justice, but, given the conditions, King's essay remains more effective, in that its persuasive techniques have more practical application. Both essays extensively implement both emotional and ethical appeal to give their respective ideas validity.

One persuasive technique that each author implements to support his ideas emotionally is the use of biblical allusion. However, in comparison, King's use is stronger in that the tone of his allusions is more appealing to the reader. King's allusions cause the reader to want take action against injustice, whereas Thoreau's are darker -- more likely to make the reader want to submit to and accept the injustices portrayed. For example, King, in his first biblical allusion, manages to draw glory into his struggle by comparing himself with the Apostle Paul, feeling "compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town," just as Paul "left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city in the Graeco-Roman world.. . ." This stirs admiration in the reader for King and adds relevance to his struggle. Later King discusses the history of his style of civil dis...


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...ide: ". . .one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other." All three of these comparisons, while being beneficial to the essay's main idea, are too obscure and irrelevant to have any real persuasive power.

Granted, both essays effectively implement both emotional and ethical appeal to the reader in order to be persuasive, and each, given the right conditions has the potential to be equally effective. But, given the conditions we are under, including the time frame, ("Civil Disobedience" was written over one hundred years before "Letter From a Birmingham Jail") King's essay, overall, features more of the characteristics, as well as the accessibility to produce a higher level of comprehension and relevance for the reader.

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