Hobbes vs. Thoreau

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Thomas Hobbes’ book, Leviathan and Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Resistance to Civil Government could not be more opposed when it comes to looking at the social contract from a political philosophy viewpoint. On the one hand, Hobbes maintains that humanity’s utmost obligation is to submit oneself to the authority of the sovereign state. Thoreau, on the other hand, argues that under specific circumstances, it is humanity’s duty is to resist the state. This paper will argue that Hobbes does not succeed in establishing our obligation to submit to the sovereign’s authority. Instead it is Thoreau whom is correct that in certain circumstances we are obliged to resist the State. The two main issues with Hobbes’ reasoning in Leviathan regarding the sovereign authority stem from his explanations of the Laws of Nature and the power of the government. In Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government, these two issues are more adequately addressed. Before establishing the reasons why Thoreau’s views on the obligations of the citizen to the state are more correct than Hobbes’, it should be noted that Thoreau’s essay, Resistance to Civil Government was published 198 years after Leviathan. While Hobbes wrote Leviathan during the English Civil War, Thoreau wrote Resistance to Civil Government as an abolitionist during the time of the slavery crisis in New England and the Mexican-American war. Therefore the differences in social context of the two works are drastic.

Not only was Leviathan regarded as one of the earliest works containing social contract theory, Hobbes himself is regarded as one of the key figures in the English Enlightenment, otherwise known as the Age of Reason. This context within which Hobbes thrived, and within which Leviathan was published is significant, because the philosophical method upon which Hobbes based Leviathan is modelled after a geometric proof, founded upon first principles and established definitions. In this model, each argument makes conclusions based upon the previous argument. Hobbes wanted to produce irrefutable political philosophy in Leviathan by creating a model based on geometry because conclusions that are derived by geometry are supposed to be indisputable. However Hobbes’ book is far from indisputable, and much of its logic is not entirely sound. This is evident in a number of examples, but most prominent are the Laws of Nature and the power of the government. In order to better explain why Hobbes does not completely succeed in establishing the obligation people have to submit to the sovereign’s authority, a brief summary of Leviathan is necessary. In Leviathan, Hobbes sets out on an exploration of human nature, which eventually leads him to the conclusion that an absolutist state, where all power lies within the hands of the sovereign authority, is necessary. The reason that Hobbes feels absolutism is necessary is what he refers to as the ‘state of nature’. The state of nature is used to explain the inherent qualities in man that makes him behave the way he does, outside of the boundaries and limits imposed by social law. For Hobbes, the state of nature consists of selfish men who will inevitably turn to violence in their quest to satisfy their own selfish needs. Therefore, because all people are inherently violent in the state of nature, all are also equal because no person is above or less capable of violence than anyone else. To the argument that some are physically stronger than others, Hobbes retorts that even those who are stronger are still vulnerable when sleeping. In this way, though all are equally violent, all are also equally vulnerable. However, man is also rational, and so in response to this vulnerability, man’s selfish desire to ensure his own life above all else, will lead them to put their faith into the social contract. The basis upon which the social contract is made necessary, in other words, the state of nature, is what ultimately produces the Leviathan. Hobbes believes that...
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