Thoreau wrote:

This American government—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.

Does the sentence use phrase "not the less" or "not || the less necessary(the + adj. structure)"?

How to paraphrase the sentence?

  • It is good practice to begin the excerpt at a point where we are not wondering about pronoun antecedents. A sentence earlier would have been a good place.
    – TimR
    Jun 17, 2017 at 16:13
  • Your second interpretation is the correct one. It isn't "not the less", it's "It is not / the less adjective".
    – stangdon
    Jun 17, 2017 at 16:42

3 Answers 3


"It is not the less necessary for this" means "It is not any less necessary on account of this".

That government is a "wooden gun" makes it no less necessary.

not the less was very common in the 18th and 19th centuries but is little used nowadays, though I wouldn't go so far as to say that it is "nonstandard" or an outright archaism.

  • "for" equals "on account of" "because of", do you mean "this" refer to the latter sentence? That government is a "wooden gun" is still necessary because "the people must have some complicated machinery..."? Then it means "the government is a wooden gun"?
    – Leon Zero
    Jun 19, 2017 at 9:13
  • I think you're arguing whether it's like an adverbial clauses of concession. I also want to know if it can be a comparative sentence, I think Thoreau wanted to compare "the government is not a wooden gun" with "it is a wooden gun", and he concluded whatever it was, people needed it.
    – Leon Zero
    Jun 19, 2017 at 9:21
  • @Leon Zero: this refers back to the fact that the "gun" is merely a wooden gun (I referred you to "Quaker gun" in an answer about this passage a week or two ago). What is necessary is "government". "But it [government] is not the less necessary for [on account of] this [i.e. this fact, namely, that it is a sort of wooden gun]." Why does it remain necessary? "For [because] the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din..."
    – TimR
    Jun 19, 2017 at 9:28

It sure means the government is necessary in spite of being but a wooden gun.

Now, @Tutleman, this quote of yours, from Emerson:

Not the less the popular measures of progress will ever be the arts and the laws.

I've done a quick search, it is in a text called "American Civilization" (1862), it means that progress will never be measured through the arts and the laws, right?

This is the idea I got from reading the original piece.

  • This does not really answer the question. If you have a different question, you can ask it by clicking Ask Question. To get notified when this question gets new answers, you can follow this question. Once you have enough reputation, you can also add a bounty to draw more attention to this question. - From Review
    – Joachim
    Mar 27, 2023 at 3:37
  • This adds nothing to the existing answers.
    – Chenmunka
    Mar 27, 2023 at 7:35

"Not the less" is not generally used in English today, at least not in the sense you're using it.

While Thoreau may have used it, it's an uncommon usage nowadays, and may be seen as incorrect, depending on where you use it. Regardless, it's not something I would expect to see with any frequency in more recent writing.

There are, as far as I can tell – with thanks to @Tᴚoɯɐuo – two main ways to understand this sentence. Either:

  1. The sentence means "[The government] is necessary even though it is a wooden gun, because of that very fact". In this case, I think the word you're looking for is "nonetheless" or "nevertheless", both of which can be used in this context: "But it is nonetheless necessary for this..." or "But it is nevertheless necessary for this..." For another example of this sort of usage of "not the less", here's a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Not the less the popular measures of progress will ever be the arts and the laws.


  1. The sentence means "The government is not less necessary because it is a wooden gun". In this case "not the less" could be paraphrased well with something like "not less" or (as @Tᴚoɯɐuo suggests) "not any less".

Nonetheless*, "not the less" is uncommon when used in the manner described in case 2, and – I'd say – even archaic in when used in the manner described in case 1. Unless you're seeking a very specific tone, I'd stay away from it.

* See what I did there? :)

  • Idiomatically I think it would also be fine today to just have But it is no less necessary. But most people would probably go for the additional "emphasis" of nevertheless (or somewhat less likely in the exact context, nonetheless). Jun 17, 2017 at 16:07
  • nevertheless and nonetheless and in spite of that do not work well as paraphrases in this particular sentence because they conflict with the meaning of for that is in effect here.
    – TimR
    Jun 17, 2017 at 16:17
  • The word "nonetheless" means something different. If something is "nonetheless necessary for" something, that means that despite that something, it is still necessary (though that something might make it less necessary than it would be otherwise). If something is "not the less necessary for" something, that means that something does not make it any less necessary. The words simply all have their ordinary, literal meanings. It's not a saying or expression, it is simply three ordinary words "not", "the", "less" each with their ordinary meanings. Jun 18, 2017 at 0:04
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo I don't believe that the for in use here necessarily conflicts with nonetheless – if one reads (as I did) the sentence as stating "It is nonetheless necessary because of that very fact", in spite of and its kin do make sense. I do, however, see your point, and I'm updating my answer to reflect that reading. Jun 18, 2017 at 0:33
  • Well, you're all right while I get my own version "It has not less necessity for this than that (it isn't a wooden gun)".
    – Leon Zero
    Jun 18, 2017 at 3:04

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