Hobbes & Machiavelli

1.

The difference between Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli’s treatments of the right of the sovereign to rule over its subjects involves two distinct theoretical practices. The simplest way of expressing this is by noting that Hobbes is compelled to take a long philosophical detour, to the state of nature, to show that an act of consent legitimates power and bans dissent. Machiavelli’s argument is simpler because it does not require this philosophical detour; he instead assumes that there is power and concerns himself with how politics is practiced. ‘As my intention is to write something useful for discerning minds,’ Machiavelli writes in The Prince, ‘I find it more fitting to seek the truth of the matter rather than imaginary conceptions.’[1] Hobbes’ state of nature is precisely the sort of imaginary conception that Machiavelli thinks can only distract from his argument.

2.

The irony is that Hobbes agrees that imaginary conceptions distract from the truth of matters. ‘They that make little, or no enquiry into the naturall cause of things, yet from the feare that proceeds from the ignorance it selfe, of what it is that hath the power to do them much good or harm,’ he writes, ‘are enclined to suppose, and feign unto themselves severall kinds of Powers Invisible; and to stand in awe at their own imaginations.’[2] The only invisible power that Hobbes allows is God. He argues that we are naturally inclined to seek out the causes of the effects that we perceive in the world, but that we come up against an unthinkable primary cause and name it God.[3] However, he argues that those who don’t investigate the causes of perceived effects invent superabundant invisible powers, ‘making the creatures of their own fancy, their Gods’.[4]

The state of nature is a superabundant invisible power. Hobbes argues that just beneath the rule of law is a visceral fear of the harm others would do us in the absence of a sovereign.[5] Hobbes names this fear the state of nature. He argues that a sovereign is legitimate just so long as it secures us against it. The state of nature isn’t a real place, or even a possible place: it is the content of a fear. Hobbes defines fear as ‘Aversion, with opinion of Hurt from the object’ and distinguishes aversion from hate by the absence or presence of an object.[6] Fear involves precisely the absence of its object. We do not need to know the state of nature in order to fear it.[7] Hobbes calls it an ‘Inference, made from the Passions’.[8]

C. B. Macpherson argues that Hobbes’ entire philosophical detour, his inference from the passions, is an abstraction from the social anxieties of a rising capitalist society.[9] Hobbes suggests this himself when he asks readers that are sceptical of the state of nature to consider their society instead.[10] Louis Althusser summarises: ‘all society is based on fear, Hobbes says, the factual proof being that you have keys.[11] Hobbes himself provides the counter claim to this abstraction: ‘If we could suppose a great Multitude of men to consent in the observation of … Lawes of Nature, without a common power to keep them all in awe, there neither would be, nor need to be any Civill Government, or Common-wealth at all.’[12] There is a need for sovereignty because if there is not a common power to overawe a society it will quickly descend into the state of nature. But the fear that it will thus descend is precisely an imaginary conception, a superstition, an invisible power that is confected to stand in for the actual practice of politics.

3.

Machiavelli responds directly to the question of ‘invisible powers’ in The Prince. In the chapter on ecclesiastical principalities he says, ‘since they are under the guidance of a superior power that the mind of man cannot fathom, I will not discuss them,’ and continues: ‘For as they are exalted and maintained by God, it would be the act of a presumptuous and audacious man to do so.’[13] He then proceeds to discuss them, saying that ‘it does not seem to me redundant to commit the essentials of this situation to memory.’[14] He flags Hobbes’s detour through superstition, but deflects it. The implication is that God hasn’t secured the papal state, but that the pope has been a skillful enough prince to make it a genuine temporal power in Italy. Rather than detouring through theology, he concerns himself with how politics is practiced.

Machiavelli’s overriding concern, in both The Prince and The Discourses, is with a political practice that can lead to stability. In The Discourses he introduces a conception of the cycle of governments that describes history as the generation of principalities, monarchies or democracies and their corruption into tyrannies, oligarchies or anarchies.[15] Machiavelli calls the motor of this cycle ‘the changeability of fortune’; ‘variations of government among men are due to chance,’ he says.[16] The lessons of The Prince aim to teach the new prince of a new principality that conditions do not remain the same and that the skill of a prince is precisely their capacity to master change. ‘I conclude that when Fortune changes and men rigidly continue in their ways,’ he writes, ‘they will flourish so long as Fortune and their ways are in accord, but they will come to ruin the moment these are in discord.’[17]

If the play of skill and fortune is Machiavelli’s first lesson, then his second lesson is the need to secure the faith of the people. ‘A wise prince must find a way in which his citizens will consider him and the state to be indispensable in all circumstance and at all times,’ he writes. ‘Then his citizens will always be faithful.’[18] Machiavelli prescribes the institution of and obedience to good laws as this ‘way’. This could be interpreted as an argument about legitimacy. However, the faith of the people doesn’t legitimate the right of the sovereign to rule over its subjects. The right of the sovereign derives either from hereditary rule or from the seizure of power. Instead Machiavelli’s reference to the faith of the people refer to his overriding concern for the stability of states. He argues that locating power with the people is preferable to locating it with either the nobility or a prince. The nobility creates instability because it wants to oppress and command the people for its own gain, ‘for men are inclined to think that they cannot hold securely what they possess unless they get more at others’ expense’.[19] He argues that people and princes can equally be variable, fickle and ungrateful or stable, prudent and grateful but that the people in the end are a surer bet. ‘For if to cure the malady of the populace a word suffices and a sword is needed to cure that of a prince,’ he writes, ‘no one will fail to see that the greater the cure, the greater the fault.’[20]

4.

In the end, Machiavelli argues, what the people want is stability. As in Hobbes, the people desire security of industry and life.[21] It could be argued correctly that both Machiavelli and Hobbes are responding to the historical fact of war as the constant disruption of industry and life. In Machiavelli’s lifetime Italy’s city-states were regularly at war and both France and Spain invaded. Hobbes fled England during the English Civil War that culminated in the execution of the sovereign, Charles I. But this doesn’t explain their different treatments of the right of the sovereign to rule over its subjects. They respond differently to war. Hobbes cannot find a basis for his Royalism in the bloody clash of Roundheads and Cavaliers and develops an imaginary conception of the origins of power to justify absolute sovereignty and to deny dissent. Machiavelli, in contrast, has no interest in the origins of power. It is instead a fact of his historical conjuncture. His manual, The Prince, doesn’t address the question of legitimacy precisely because the answer to the question has no bearing on a prince’s capacity to dominate change, or fortune.[22]


[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Peter Constantine (London: Vintage Books, 2009), intro., p. 2; ch. 15, p. 55.

[2] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-wealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill, ed. C.B. Macpherson (London: Penguin, 1985), ch. 11, p. 167-8

[3] Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 11, p. 167.

[4] Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 11, p. 168.

[5] Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 13, p. 186.

[6] Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 6, p. 123.

[7] Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 6, p. 120: ‘But Aversion wee have for things, not only which we know have hurt us; but also that we do not know whether they will hurt us, or not.’

[8] Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 13, p. 186.

[9] C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, From Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962) pp. 61-68.

[10] Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 13, p. 186-7.

[11] Louis Althusser, The Philosophy of the Encounter, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (London and New York: Verso Books, 2006), p 180. Emphasis original.

[12] Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 17, p. 225.

[13] Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 11, p. 40.

[14] Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 11, p. 41.

[15] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses, trans. Lesley J. Walker (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1983), bk. 1, ch. 2, p. 106.

[16] Machiavelli, The Discourses, bk. 1, ch. 2, pp. 108, 106.

[17] Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 24. p. 92.

[18] Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 36.

[19] Machiavelli, The Discourses, bk. 1, ch. 5, pp. 116, 118. Cf. The Prince, ch. 9, p. 33ff.

[20] Machiavelli, The Discourses, bk. 1, ch. 58, pp. 254, 257.

[21] Cf. Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 13. p. 186 and Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 21, p. 83.

[22] On dominating fortune see: Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 14, p. 54; ch. 25, p. 92.