Hobbes vs. Thoreau
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 in order to secure their own lives, people will automatically submit all of their freedom into the hands of the sovereign’s authority. One of the first aspects of Hobbes’ work that undermines his, mostly logically-sound Leviathan, concerns the Laws of Nature. Hobbes seems to take it for granted that all the people in a single state would agree with one another to submit all of their power to one authoritative entity, on the basis that they will realize it is in the best interest of their security.
As professor Ian Johnston says, “If human beings are like sheep, I don’t see why they need a ruler; if human beings are like wolves, I don’t see how they will tolerate a ruler. ” If, as Hobbes suggests, the state of nature is anarchy, then what aspect of nature drives all people to form a commonwealth? In this respect, it appears that Hobbes contradicts himself, for he proclaims that man is brutish, violent, and only concerned with self-interest, however he is also reasonable enough to form a social ontract in which his own ease and commodious living is secured. In light of the latter characteristics of man that Hobbes describes, where man is rational enough to participate in such a social contract, the necessity of submitting oneself entirely to the sovereign authority is unfounded and too extreme. The second main issue with Leviathan concerns the power of the government. Hobbes fails to explain why people would trust an authority made up of other people, no different from themselves.
If every person knows that their own inherent violence and selfishness is what necessitates total rule by an authoritative figure, would they not doubt the authority, assuming that the corruptness inside of them extends to said authority as well? Hobbes does not seem to consider this issue worth much in-depth consideration, for he does not believe that the sovereign authority would ever put the people in a situation where they need to defend themselves from the governing powers. According to Hobbes, the state will remain efficient because it recognizes its dependence upon the work of the citizens.
In Hobbes’ words, “the private interest is the same with the public. The riches, power, and honour of a monarch arise only from the riches, strength and reputation of his subjects. For no king can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure, whose subjects are either poor, or contemptible, or too weak through want, or dissention, to maintain a war against their enemies. ” However, the consequences on a person’s ability to produce wealth for a country is not the only concern for a state in which all the power rests within the hands of a sovereign authority.
Hobbes answer does not reach any further into the moral or human rights of the citizens, which are much more vulnerable to being infringed upon in an absolutist state. Hobbes neglects to address this because he believes that the state would not attack these rights based on the fact that it would potentially produce chaos, which is the exact opposite of what the sovereign authority is meant to do. It is clear that for Hobbes, the dangers of a tyrannical sovereign are more appealing than the absence of any sovereign, or in other words, a society left to the state of nature.
While having some form of government, as opposed to rampant violence, is preferable, it is unnecessary for the citizens to relinquish all freedom to the authority of the sovereign, as Hobbes suggests. It would have been impossible for Hobbes to predict the political evolution of modern states. However his description of the benefits of the absolutist state hint at modern examples of states where all the power has been concentrated into a single, sovereign authority, leading to the extreme corruption that Hobbes believed it would eradicate.
The 20th century is full of examples of this; however one that particularly exemplifies the dangers of total submission to the state is Fascist Italy, ruled absolutely by Benito Mussolini from the early 1920s to the mid 1940s. Instead of aiding the state and its people, Mussolini created an illusion of what the common good really was, in order to enforce his own, absolute power. This lead to a significant decrease in security and loss of many human lives, which seems to indicate that submitting all power to the state, can lead people back into Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’, instead of out of it.
While Hobbes’ endorsement of absolutism may have noble aims for humanity, when looked at from its primal and organic intentions, often absolutism results in the violent enforcing of rules or ideologies upon people, which is in itself a loss of security, and form of inhumane chaos. In a reaction to the rampant slavery in America during the 19th century and the Mexican-American war, Thoreau wrote the essay Resistance to Civil Government, hoping to encourage people to trust their own consciences over the rule of the law enforced by the government.
Thoreau believes that mans best service to one’s own country paradoxically takes the form of resistance against it, if one feels that the government is supporting unjust or immoral laws. Subverting to the government, no matter what, or out of the necessity of obligation is to the detriment of the state and society, according to Thoreau. Instead, it is better to work to build a better one in the long term, even if that means chaos or anarchy in the form of revolution n the short-term.
Though Thoreau’s views seem much more modern than Hobbes, Thoreau does doubt the effectiveness of democracy, or rather the reform of a government from within the government. Believing that voting and petitioning for change to be inefficient, Thoreau feels that one cannot truly see the government for what it is when one is working with it, and therefore one also cannot effect change when working with the government. In sharp contrast to Hobbes’ views on the role of the government, Thoreau not only proclaims, “that government is best which governs least”, but even going so far as to say, “that government is best which governs not at all. This is an example of where finding the middle ground between Hobbes and Thoreau is useful. While Hobbes may be correct that some form of government is necessary to a level of order within the state, Thoreau’s reasoning for why the government can be interfering can be found in modern example of politics. According to Thoreau, the government is used by a certain group of people to impose on others for their own personal gains. In this way, the government aids the success of those who control the state while impeding the success of those who are imposed upon.
This view on the government can find itself exemplified in specific aspects of the American government. Though the role of the government is to secure the safety and rights of all its citizens equally, many had dubbed the 20th century as an era of ‘corporatism’ for America, securing only the interests of companies. Corporatism, in terms of politics, is when wealth is used as a tool by corporations to sway the government in the direction of their own private interests. The overwhelming dominance of corporations can spread beyond politics, into many aspects of society.
There are a number of negative effects of corporatism for the ‘common man’, such as pervasiveness on works unions, the increase in taxes coming out of citizens pockets in order to provide direct outlays, the subsidizing of unsubsidized jobs, the erosion of virtue within commerce, etc. Thoreau would have agreed with this notion of ‘corporate America’ for he believed the government to be like a machine, in which injustice is an inevitable component. Thoreau did not intend to ‘demonize’ the American government, but rather to shed light on what he felt was a total lack of agency or usefulness.
This example establishes a modern framework for Thoreau’s argument that the government is not infallible, and how the role of the government sometimes necessitates resistance. As Hobbes would state, it is a natural part of being human to look out for one’s best interest. However, like his views on the role of the government, Thoreau’s view on the nature of men appears to also be more correct, in light of current or historical politics. In other words, chaos is not always best dealt with by being replaced by subservience, but by resistance and a change in ideological structure.
Another current example of the validity behind Thoreau’s argument can be found in the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring refers to the movement of uprisings that arose and spread across the Arab world in 2011. It led to many revolutionary outcomes, such as the first free Tunisian election in October; the Egyptian president Mubarak being displaced by a pro-democracy movement; the toppling of dictator Gadhafi, liberation of Libya, and the removal of the ban on Libyan political parties; and the authoritarian leader of Jordan being forced to replace his government.
None of these movements would have been possible without people’s willingness to fight to bring some of the power away from the government, and into their own hands. As if often the case with political philosophy, both Hobbes’ and Thoreau’s views are best when aspects of both theorists are taken and combined. When the absolutist nature of the government Hobbes’ argues for is taken away, his belief that a governing entity is required for maintaining a certain, and desirable, level of order becomes more valid.
However in order to ensure that the rights and of citizens are protected, Thoreau is correct in arguing that resistance to an unjust government is the only way to ensure a just government. However, between Hobbes’ Leviathan, and Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government, the latter is more successful in establishing a sound view on the social contract. Thoreau’s advocates the evolution, and not destruction of the government.
Therefore his argument that the government should be one that is capable of improvement based on the needs of the people, and his argument that people should embrace chaos if it means a just and moral reform of the government succeeds more than the arguments of Hobbes. Bibliography Bird, Alexander. “Squaring the Circle: Hobbes on Philosophy and Geometry. ” Journal of the History of Ideas. 10. 1 (1996): 217-231. Germino, Dante. “Italian Fascism in the History of Political Thought. ” Midwest Journal of Political Science. 8. 2 (1964): 109-126. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London: Penguin Books, 1968/1651. Johnston, Ian. “Four Problems in Theory. On Hobbes Leviathon. Created December 2002. Accessed November 2012. <http://records. viu. ca/~johnstoi/introser/hobbes. htm> Keller, Ever. “In the service of “truth” and victory”: Geometry and rhetoric in the political works of Thomas Hobbes. ” Prose Studies: History, Theory Criticism. 15. 2 (2008): 129-152. May, Larry. Ethics in the History of Western Philosophy. New York: MacMillan/St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Owen, Judd J. “The Tolerant Leviathan: Hobbes and the Paradox of Liberalism. ” Polity. 37. 1 (2005): 130-148. Schmitter, Philippe C. “Still the Century of Corporatism? ” The Review of Politics. 36. 1 (1974): 85-131.
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