Machiavelli and Hobbes
When seeking to frame the intricacies and paradoxes of the human political process in cogent, philosophical terms, any philosopher or thinker is bound to establish a mode of political philosophy which necessarily elevates certain qualities of human nature above others. In fact, it is likely that what political philosophy consists of, at its root, is the appraisal and examination of human nature as it is expressed through collective society. For some political philosophers, the impulses which are regarded as universal, such as “selfishness” or even self-preservation are viewed as cornerstones, or key-components, of not only political theory but of human society as a whole.
In this regard, political philosophy must be viewed as a pragmatic discipline, one which seeks to understand, influence, and possibly “control” the massively complex and historically titanic apparatus of human government. For political philosophers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes, the apparatus of human government (and its historical evolution) may represent radically different totalities and opportunities; for Machiavelli government is an instrument of power, one which serves the self-determined “ruler” — for Hobbes, the “leviathan” of government is an historical manifestation of nature (itself a manifestation of Divine Power) and the “ruler” of government is endowed, likewise, with power.
For Hobbes, justice involves a vision of human society as “a war of each against all; a condition in which each person has a right to all things” (Ewin 93) and because, according to Hobbes, there is in nature an absence of justice and ethical law, justice is best envisioned as “the condition that obtains between sovereign states; a condition in which each is his own judge” (Ewin 93) and this assumption, of course, relies to a great extent on the notion of power.
The idea of power find expression, morally, not only in interpersonal relationships, but in civic relationships; for Hobbes, there must be authority to administer justice where it is absent in a state of nature. What Hobbes has created is, in effect, “a reductio argument to show the necessity of authority relationships in any social life” (Ewin 94) and it is from these authorities that justice is both defined and enforced upon an essentially amoral or even immoral universe. Although Hobbes’ language on the subject of the state of nature may seem dense and hard to penetrate, his conclusions are essentially simple: that the laws of nature must only be observed “as they subject us not to any incommodity, that in our own judgment may arise, by the neglect thereof in those towards whom we observe them” (Ewin 118) but Hobbes is certainly not promoting or extending the idea that in the state of nature anything like an absolute sense of justice exists. instead, it is a war for power and the ability to define justice and the state of moral and ethical determinations.
Hobbes turns to the concept of a “leviathan” or a form of social-poltical construct (a State) which would act as the communal opposition to the inherently destructive natural instincts for selfishness and pursuit of individual hedonism that arise from the state of nature. Within the context of the relationship between individual desires and the power of the state, the individual must submit to the will of the State:
As a matter of justice[…] Communal life in the face of disagreement requires that some submit to others. If we are to have communal life, that submission is inescapable. The question to be asked is whether the procedure determining who submits to whom is a just one.
For Hobbes, notions of freedom, justice, personal liberty, and personal property are not rooted in nature but constructed from human rationality in the face of lawless nature. The adjudication and enforcement of any system of justice or ethics is dependent upon power. The power of a leviathan or State to enforce justice exists due to the covenant with the collective citizenry. Though it may be simplifying Hobbes philosophy to state, explicitely, that Hobbes equates power with justice, such a connection, is, in fact, present in his theories.
Similarly, Machiavelli expresses the view both in “The Prince” and in “The Discourses” that government is an agency by which humanity is compelled to protect itself from itself. As with Hobbes, a natural hierarchy is implied: “the preference given to the nobility, as guardians of public liberty, has two advantages: the first, to yield something to the ambition of those who, being more engaged in the management of public affairs, find, so to say, in the weapon which the office places in their hands” (Discourses, V) where the implication is both that those with “ambition” may rise to be “guardians of public liberty” and that, obviously, the public requires guardians, above themselves.
Of note, also, is the following passage where the insinuation is that, even among the ambitious, lesser-traits of self-interest and self-glorification will be somewhat blunted by the simple reality of the ambitious rising over the public to attain “a means of power that satisfies them; the other, to deprive the restless spirit of the masses of an authority calculated from its very nature to produce trouble and dissensions” (Discourses, V).
It is possible that Machiavelli, like Hobbes, viewed sovereigns as those who were ordained by nature or by Divine Will to rule over those who were innately less resourceful and less powerful than themselves. In this case, both Machiavelli and Hobbes admit a tendency to equate sovereignty with justice, first, and then justice with Divine Will. This train of thought appears to be based on rationality and deductive reasoning in the case of each of the philosophers, but upon closer inspection both Machiavelli and Hobbes may have been using a much more simple derivation of government sovereignty: in that it reflects purely the will of the victor, the strongest.
When Machiavelli remarks: “We must employ all proper means to repress violence and force, and that whoever claims justice shall employ the regular way for obtaining it, and aid no one to employ force or violence” (Discourses VI) it may appear that he is condemning the use of violence as a political agent, but in reality, he is suggesting, rather, that those who wield violence with sufficient force should attempt to quell violence in others — in those who may someday stand opposed to them.
What is interesting about both Hobbes and Machiavelli is that their pragmatic rationality which admits a universal propensity for selfishness and competition, somehow construe that the sovereignty of government, attained through the very means which most facilitate selfishness and hierarchical competition, can in the same breath and by the same rational means assume that sovereignty will somehow remain incontrovertibly connected to “justice.” So, for Machiavelli, a corrupt government results in a state where “all religion and fear of God are extinct, so an oath and a given pledge have lost all value, except when they can be employed for the purpose of gaining some advantage” (Discourses X).
In this statement, there can be no doubt that Machiavelli then believes that a good government, meaning one which is not “corrupted,” must then be rife with a healthy “fear of God” and a functioning religious core. The latter observation betrays the fact that whatever Machiavelli’s finer preoccupations with political statecraft and theoretical concepts regarding politics might have been, his heart was firmly entrenched in the idea of monarchy and the Divine Right of Royals.
In fact, Machiavelli insinuates that a people without a monarchal ruler will become “lost:”
Many examples in ancient history prove how difficult it is for a people that has been accustomed to live under the government of a prince to preserve its liberty, if by some accident it has recovered it, […] And this difficulty is a reasonable one; for such a people may well be compared to some wild animal, which (although by nature ferocious and savage) has been as it were subdued by having been always kept imprisoned and in servitude, and being let out into the open fields,
(Machiavelli, 1998, p. 86)
This conclusion should not be surprising, as Western society has historically viewed politics as a way to grapple with human nature and the self-interests which are believed to drive human behavior. Although this perception of human nature has opposing views among Western philosophers such as Locke,the collective impact of The Prince and Leviathan as penetrating insights into the hierarchical and self-interested aspects of humanity, which in some ways, by some points of view seemed contrary, to me, to the essential viewpoint and philosophical perspective which may be necessary for Western society to embrace in the future.
So an important insight is, in fact, the most important insight in my opinion, is that these great philosophers denote, to a very large degree, the visions of the past, and ideas about politics, which, while still very current, are probably apt to evolve in the future. One might even go so far as to suggest that the present, with its global discord and challenges presents a time of “punctuated equilibrium” for Western philosophical and political thought.
To begin with, viewing the massive, sometimes oppressively “omnipotent” government in contemporary times as something which is not only necessary, but — in fact – demonstrates both the triumph of humanity over the hostilities of nature, but also the attainment of “justice” is sometimes difficult for me to see. On the other hand, I have no issue with seeing that many other people, and in fact, people in powerful positions in government, belive this completely.
When Hobbes writes that: ” Hitherto I have set forth the nature of Man, (whose Pride and other Passions have compelled him to submit himselfe to Government;) together with the great power of his Governour, whom I compared to Leviathan, taking that comparison out of the two last verses of the one and fortieth of Job; where God having set forth the great power of Leviathan, calleth him King of the Proud” (Waller,1901, p. 231), I shudder to think that actual people in positions of power in the real world believe this as gospel. I think, specifically, of the Bush administration’s recent attempt to expand Presidential authority: “There is nothing, saith he, on earth, to be compared with him. He is made so as not to be afraid. Hee seeth every high thing below him; and is King of all the children of pride.” (Waller, 1901, p. 231)
What are the implications for a modern application of these kinds of political philosophies? How do the abstract concepts presented by Hobbes and Machiavelli avail themselves in, say, modern America? The logical outcome of the modern vision of the President as the leader of a specific political party, rather than the Constitutional conception of the President as a non-partisan arbiter of the Congress, is that individual Presidential candidates, rather than the political parties themselves, would emerge as the foremost consideration in Presidential elections. Hobbes’ Leviathan needs a “head” and in modern times his admonition, quoted below, seems especially frightening:
“The maintenance of Civill Society, depending on Justice and Justice on the power of Life and Death, and other lesse Rewards and Punishments, residing in them that have the Soveraignty of the Common-wealth; It is impossible a Common-wealth should stand, where any other than the Soveraign, hath a power of giving greater rewards than Life; and of inflicting greater punishments, then Death
(Waller, 1901, p. 326)
In practical terms, the rise of the “candidate” campaign has eliminated the old method of “platform” politics where a political parties ideological and issue-related stances are measured against one another with the direct contest between one candidate and another. One clear result of this practice is that individual candidates are now virtually dissected by the media and by prospective voters to measure their probable “characters” and “defects.” The fascination with individual manners, faux pas, manner of dress, speech, religious affiliation, past memberships in social organizations or clubs, or even past associations with friends or acquaintances now play, arguably, a more important role than issues in recent Presidential elections.
The point at which the self-interest of leaders becomes, itself, the most dangerous threat to any nation, culture, or society, is among the most important lessons I learned from the class readings and I most specifically learned this from reading The Prince, which I found to be, like Hobbes, much more illuminating on the subject of how Western society has viewed itself and its political institutions than as a penetrating glimpse into humanity’s essential nature or future cultural and political existence.
The self-interest of leaders, according to Machiavelli should not at even such heinous acts as political assassination. Machiavelli stresses that all acts of a political nature are rooted in self-interest. It is not a matter of public-service, but of public passivity and censure that drives the politician. Speaking of Oliverotto’s murder of his enemies, Machiavelli remarks: “After this murder, Oliverotto mounted his horse, paraded through the town, and besieged the chief officials in the government palace; so that out of fear they were forced to obey him and to constitute a government of which he made himself prince” (Machiavelli, 1998, p. 32).
Implicit in this remark is not only the idea that murder can be an expedient political strategy but that any political act is partially only what it is perceived to be. Machiavelli mentions of Oliveratto “And when all those were killed who, because they were discontented, might have harmed him, he strengthened himself by instituting new civil and military institutions; so that, in the space of the year that he held the principality,(Machiavelli, 1998, p. 32).
Taken together, the political philosophies of Machiavelli and Hobbes leave little room or desire for such forms of government as a modern democracy. The hierarchical vision of sovereignty and justice which informs each of these philosopher’s vision of human political society is such that only a direct form of direct ad absolute power, monarchal power, which is insinuated by both men to be a part of Divine Will, results in a form of government which is stable enough to protect the public from its own selfish nature.
The one overarching paradox which emerges from even a cursory reading of Machiavelli and Hobbes is that the extreme cynicism which informs their view of human nature is somehow transformed through the simple possession of sovereignty into an extreme idealism which seems to suggest that a nation’s rulers are closer to “god” than those whom they rule. Such a conclusion does not seem readily evident or sustainable by the use of pure rational thought, but such a view becomes far more easy to understand when one entertains the idea of a sort of “social Darwinistic” underpinning to everything being suggested about human nature, human competition, and the organization of human society and government, by Machiavelli and Hobbes.
If one is able to accept the premise that humans are, by nature, self-interested, and that this elf-interest promotes a competition through which the “best” rise to rule the “lesser” then the rest of the conclusions which are forwarded by Hobbes and Machiavelli, particularly those which have to do with the “justice” of laws being made by sovereigns and imposed upon the “public” make perfect sense. However, in the case of each of these philosophers, the role of violence and power of violence is also accorded a role in the evolution of “justice” and sovereignty adn it is not too far of a stretch to suggest that in each case, these thinkers are offering “might is right” as a core belief in everything else which flows through their respective political philosophies. In conclusion, the political philosophies of Hobbes and Machiavelli represent a compelling collection of ideas which seem to have driven Western politics for centuries. However strong the rational conclusions, observations, and inspired thoughts of these past philosophers –to my mind — none of the theories offered seem to address the issues which seem most problematic and current in contemporary society. By following the ideas in these philosophical systems which elevate self-interest, social schism, warfare, and political expedience, the social, political, and cultural resources of the West are weakened, not strengthened.
Machiavelli, N. (1998). The Prince (P. Bondanella, Ed.) (Bondanella, P. & Musa, M., Trans.).
Oxford: Oxford University.
Plato. (1991). The Republic of Plato (Bloom, A., Trans.) (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
Waller, A. R. (Ed.). (1904). Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Forme & Power of a Commonwealth,
Ecclesiasticall and Civill. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Ewin, R. E. Virtues and Rights: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.
Detmold Christian E (1882) The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, tr. from the Italian. (Boston, J. R. Osgood and company). Vol. 2.