On Machiavelli and Hobbes
Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of realpolitik, and Thomas Hobbes, political philosophy’s founder, have transcended time as two of the most influential political theorists history has ever seen. Machiavelli writes from a realistic perspective with no fantasies about men and human nature. Hobbes had few fantasies as well, but his ideas on government are a bit more idealistic than Machiavelli’s, and the main factor in most of Hobbes’ arguments is fear. While the two share ideas on human nature, the state of nature, and how religion is incorporated into secular rule, their ideas differ when it comes to types of government, self-preservation, and war.
Machiavelli greatly influenced Hobbes, especially on the views of the state of nature. Machiavelli, as proclaimed in The Discourses, believes that “all men are bad, and that they always have to use the malignity of their spirit whenever they have a free opportunity for it” (qtd. in Rubery 192). Hobbes, in a similar fashion, states that man, by nature, is in a “condition which is called war” and that life for men is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (qtd. in Sutton 241). Hobbes argues that all men are born equal and even the weak are able to kill the strong in his state of nature. However, from the vulnerable state of war comes a necessity to seek peace and establish the compact which is the state. Each philosopher states that man must do whatever is necessary for survival.
Because humans essentially want the same things, according to Hobbes, they will deceive and manipulate in order to attain their desires. It is because men “desire the same thing…they become enemies” (qtd. in Sutton 240). Men are driven by their passions and human reason is the means by which men attempt to slake their passions. In The Prince, Machiavelli writes about how the ruler or prince will appear to take action for the good of the people but in reality is only acting on his own selfish behalf. He writes that
Men in general judge more by their eyes than their hands…. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are; and these few dare not oppose the opinions of many… So let a prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable and will be praised by everyone. (qtd. in Rubery 207)
Again, for Machiavelli, like Hobbes, the ends justify the means, even if the ends only maintain the guise of appearing honorable though they are for selfish benefit.
Though Machiavelli offers ideas on how a ruler should lead in The Prince, his actual thoughts on political philosophy lie in The Discourses, in which he advocates for a republic. Hobbes advocates for an absolute sovereign or absolute government. Hobbes’ government defines what is just and unjust and relies on force and fear, similar to Machiavelli’s teachings of how to rule in The Prince. Machiavelli argues that power and violence are central to politics. He writes about acts of “well-used cruelty” and how they must sometimes be used to prove a point and to uphold order in the state (Rubery 208). He does note in The Discourses, however, that it is morally repugnant to any community to do employ such methods. Similar to Machiavelli, Hobbes argues that the government must use both force and fear to maintain and structure order in the state.
Hobbes’ philosophy on government draws from Machiavelli’s theory in Chapter 17 of The Prince that it better “to be feared than loved.” Hobbes states as such because it is this “fear of government [that] characterizes civil society” (Sutton 247). He proceeds to call for a strong absolute government that determines what is just and unjust through a process called legal positivism. Machiavelli writes of the prince having absolute power and doing what he wishes to meet his own goals. He also concludes that the prince should rule on two levels: an animalistic (physical force) one and one of human reasoning (the law). By using both, the prince can maintain his power and make effective his rule. Similarly, Hobbes notes that the government should use both the sword (physical force) and fear (the law) to ensure its role in and over society. He writes in Leviathan, Chapter 21, “that the laws are of no power to protect them without a sword in the hands of a man, or men, to cause those laws to be put in execution” (qtd. in Sutton 266).
Machiavelli, though an atheist, wrote that the prince must appear to be concerned with the faith of his subjects to appease them though he may not agree with the religion or make decisions based upon it. Rather, he argues, the prince must judge each situation as it presents itself. Morals, in these cases, are judged based upon their usefulness in the situation. As long as the prince appears good and seems to be making decisions for the good of the people and in accordance with the people’s beliefs, they will be satisfied. Ultimately, Machiavelli believes that “the necessity of circumstance dictates all actions and that a prince should be willing and able to do whatever is necessary to keep order and security” (Rubery 207). Hobbes, however, notes that religion and the fear of one’s God is in direct competition with the fear of the absolute sovereign. If a person fears God more than his ruler, then he will follow the religious rules set forth by his religion as opposed to the laws set forth by the sovereign. Ergo, Hobbes argues that religion must be incorporated into secular law in order to prevent disobedience.
Each philosopher argues that the people place their trust and desires for self-preservation in the government. Hobbes proclaims that the people choose a sovereign through a compact, which he calls a covenant, and Machiavelli states that the people choose a representative for them in a republic. Hobbes writes that the will of the sovereign is a “separate will authorized to secure the natural rights of the citizens,” thus ensuring their self-preservation (Sutton 256). This ruler is granted and indeterminate amount of power for it is by any means that he may rule to secure order and the citizens’ natural rights. To go against the sovereign would be to go against oneself because it is through the covenant that the people have chosen the ruler who enacts laws and such for the people’s best interests. Hobbes also acknowledges in Chapter 21 of Leviathan that “sovereignty is by covenant of every one to every one” (qtd. in Sutton 266). There is an exception though: when the sovereign calls upon a man to harm himself or another human, man has the liberty to disobey because it goes against self-preservation. Machiavelli calls for a republic based on popular power and consent. The power in his republic is derived from the people for the interests of the people. They are to choose a representative who embellishes their beliefs; however, this representative should truly act upon their interests and not upon his own. Machiavelli believes that “states that can integrate popular power in political institutions are stronger, can achieve more and are more adaptable” (Crick 46).
Machiavelli and Hobbes also have differing views on fighting in wars. Machiavelli writes that if the people who were to fight were united for a cause, primarily to protect their own land, which they loved, they would fight to the death for their state. He does preach, though, that war should be avoided at all costs because of the sacrifices that will be made during wartime. Hobbes, on the other hand, suggests in Chapter 21 of Leviathan that a man is entitled to refuse to fight, for that is not unjust, but the sovereign has “right enough to punish his refusal with death” (qtd. in Sutton 267). The argument Hobbes makes is that if a man is fearful enough of his sovereign, then he will fight for the sovereign. He does make allowances for men who are cowardly or those who have “feminine courage,” though this is only dishonorable, but not unjust (qtd. in Sutton 267). Hobbes continues that if a man enlists in the army, then he is obliged to go into battle and not to leave unless his commanding officer permits such. His final thoughts on war are that when it is necessary for everyone to go to war, everyone “is obliged; because otherwise the institution of the Commonwealth…was in vain” (qtd. in Sutton 267).
Though Machiavelli and Hobbes have different views on many subjects, such as self-preservation, war, and types of government, Hobbes was greatly influenced by Machiavelli’s works which is why they share similar ideas on other subjects like religious incorporation, human nature, and the state of nature. Neither is wrong in his way of thinking, and their influence has stretched far along the course of the human race. Many of Hobbes’ teachings are applied to modern political thought and Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince are frequently used in today’s business world. Each man brought to the table and enlightened and impressive pattern of thinking that continue to work their wonders on men every day.
Crick, Bernard. "Introduction." The Discourses. By Niccolo Machiavelli. London: Penguin, 2003. 15-71.
Rubery, Andrea. "Machiavelli." An Invitation to Political Thought. Ed. Kenneth L. Deutsch and
Joseph R. Fornieri. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2009. 183-223. Print.
Sutton, Sean D. "Thomas Hobbes." An Invitation to Political Thought. Ed. Kenneth L. Deutsch and
Joseph R. Fornieri. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2009. 225-69. Print.
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