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Resisting the Scaffold: Self-Preservation and Limits of Obligation in Hobbes's Leviathan

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The degree to which Hobbes's citizenry retains its right to resist sovereign power has been the source of a significant debate. It has been argued by a number of scholars that there is a clear avenue for legitimate rebellion in Hobbes's state, as described in the Leviathan – in this work, Hobbes asserts that subjects can retain their natural right to self-preservation in civil society, and that this represents an inalienable right that cannot, under any circumstances, be transferred to the sovereign. The conclusion frequently drawn from this feature of Hobbes's account is that it places a considerable limit on sovereign authority. The right to self-preservation has been taken as proof that Hobbes sought to ensure that the sovereign's power relies upon the continual consent of the individuals that make up his or her constituency. I want to examine Hobbes's account of this civil right in Leviathan in order to show that this line of interpretation is ultimately unfounded. While self-preservation results from the individual's own judgment of threats to her personal safety, it is justified in only the most strictly delineated contexts. Judgments regarding the overall peace and security of the state do not, and cannot, fall to individual experiences and judgments. Hobbes is quite adamant that individuals are not appropriate judges of right and wrong action in matters the sovereign legislates.


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