Comparing Machiavelli and Hobbes

Comparing Machiavelli and Hobbes

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Machiavelli and Hobbes


To be successful, one must have the appearance of virtuousness, but not necessarily be virtuous. At least, this appears to be true according to Niccolo Machiavelli's works. Machiavelli's idea of the virtuous republican citizen may be compared to Hobbes' idea of a person who properly understands the nature and basis of sovereign political power. Hobbes' ideas seem to suggest that most anyone can claim rightful authority as there is a belief in God, and one can under Hobbes, claim legitimate authority rather easily. There are few proofs. Machiavelli, on the other hand, takes a strong position and suggests specific criteria in terms of power. With Machiavelli, there is a sense of righteousness and fairness and while he does not sanction authoritarian rule to save man from himself, it is also true that Machiavelli puts a lot of faith in leaders also. In some respects, one can see that the two theorists agree yet Machiavelli’s proposed Political society is more feasible thus superior to that of Hobbes.
While both Machiavelli and Hobbes agree that there should be rule by a sovereign, and that this individual will probably make better decisions than individuals, the two disagree on basic assumptions. While Machiavelli believes that the ends justify the means, Hobbes tends to align religion and politics and sees the way in which policies play out as vital for the moral good of society. Machiavelli embraces the idea of a virtuous republican citizen similar to how one might consider a citizen today. To give power and authority to the individual in charge, and trust in what he is doing, is to be virtuous. Hobbes' idea of a subject who properly understands the nature and basis of sovereign political power is more important than the simple, unquestioning support of the leader.
It would seem that Machiavelli would see the best qualities of a staunch Republican citizen in the manner described. The individual should be supportive of his or her leader and while not completely unquestioning; the citizen should be accepting of the leader's judgment. One could infer that the primary qualities of a staunch Republican citizen are characterized by traits which go to loyalty and trust. Trust in the leader is essential and may be developed in many of ways. A Republican citizen may be compared to subjects of principalities or to corrupt political societies. However, a Republican citizen is not corrupt.

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He or she is dedicated to the proliferation of a good and peaceful state. Hobbes might respond to Machiavelli's claims for the superiority of republican citizenship and republic liberty quite differently, contending that the leader is not necessarily always morally correct. Yet, Hobbes does see sovereigns as deserving of respect and believes that they may know more than the average citizen. That kings and queens and princes are born knowing how to rule is a belief that perhaps these philosophers share.
Hobbes seems to simply see legitimate authority as existing by nature, and necessary due to the nature of man. In some way, one can say that this is true of Machiavelli as well. Hobbes said, in The Leviathan: "...it is the part of a wise man to believe them no further than right reason makes that which they say appear credible" In other words, Hobbes supports a host of things simply because he is fascinated with authority kings, queens, and princes, whether that authority is truly legitimate or not. While in some sense Hobbes is more reasonable in discerning right and wrong action, he still believes in God and that is paramount.
In looking at the Hobbes point of view, it seems that Machiavelli has overlooked some key features in that Machiavelli fails to put God above man. This is an important point and to some extent divides the ideas of Hobbes and Machiavelli. It is difficult to imagine making law without God at the center. The two men seem to passionately disagree and have a grossly different outlook in terms of who is running the show. The embrace of God, or the rejection of God, is important in terms of how one views man. Machiavelli believes that good Princes make good law because there is an intrinsic right and wrong, but Hobbes really puts God at the center of the issue asserting that what is good is of God.
There are several other differences one can note when comparing and contrasting Hobbes and Machiavelli. Machiavelli conveys the message that leaders must change with the times while it would seem that Hobbes would not support such a notion as God's dictums are timeless. In many ways, the convictions that underlie Hobbes' ideas are stronger. There was an incompatibility of religious ideas and a humanity that seems to be more equated with selfishness than with generosity. According to Machiavelli, one must have the appearance of virtuousness, but not necessarily be virtuous. That seems to be a contradiction and Hobbes would not likely support such an idea. At the same time, Machiavelli's ends justifying the means hypothesis is not all that terrible. Those who would criticize the position would be comforted to know that the author fully expects a leader to look at every possible option and not to make choices frivolously. In other words, Machiavelli believes that princes should be accountable. He believed in good and bad and sincerely held that people could make good choices. Still, he did not have the religious conviction as did Hobbes.
Also, it is important to note that Hobbes is driven by the belief in God and in right and wrong and while Machiavelli also holds that the feud between good and bad is ever-present, he gives more credit to man and man's ability to discern the difference. In many ways, Hobbes' conception of political membership is more morally defensible because he credits the chosen as being tied or selected by God. Machiavelli, on the other hand, does no such thing and instead sees man as having worth in and of himself. To Machiavelli, man is alone in the universe.
Although the philosophies of these two men are juxtaposed in the sense that either all comes from God, or everything is man's doing, there are many common interests and points to emanate from these theorists. One point is that both seem to hold tight to the idea of righteousness and right action. Even though Machiavelli does not hold God accountable for all, there is still the idea that the ends justify the means. That is, there must be justification for action and people should not act on their whims. There is right and wrong, and while Hobbes believes all that too, he merely comes from a different perspective.
     Both Machiavelli and Hobbes promote brilliant political societies yet Machiavelli proposes one which is possible to obtain. Machiavelli realizes that political conflict is inevitable and promotes a series of plans to deal with nearly every situation. In the real world conflict can not be wholly avoided but it can be managed and this is what Machiavelli provides. His tactics in many instances may not be virtuous behind the scenes however; his outward appearance encourages a loyal political society. Hobbes’ political society although perhaps ideal is unrealistic. It is better to peruse a political society which can become a reality and ensure a comfortable life for its inhabitants than to chase a society which is contrary to human nature.
The difference in ideas may be illustrated by looking at a contemporary situation. Today, there is a great divide in America by people who align themselves with the religious right and contend that abortion is murder with those who believe that there is an intrinsic right to choose to allow a pregnancy to persist or not. Although each individual who supports either view thinks that what they believe is right and just, one relies on religion and God for their answers to moral questions, while the other relies on intrinsic notions aligned with human nature. There is a similar difference between the two theorists in that one takes his morality from God and the other from man. Yet, each in their own way believes in notions of right and wrong. Both societies are masterful yet Machiavelli is much more clear and concise in his proposed political society. Perhaps God has no bearing in his work but he still provides moral fiber and strong leadership which is what religion basically accomplishes. It is foolish to assume that humans can exist in a society with no political conflict unless they are conformed to one set of ideas. This conformity would not provoke thought or reason and that can not be oppressed. Machiavelli does an ingenious job providing for nearly all scenarios which a principality would encounter and his political society is superior to that of Hobbes.

Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1994.               
Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince Penguin 1999.
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