Hobbes and Machiavelli

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Thomas Hobbes, the son of an English vicar in the late 16th Century, approaches the questions of politics and human nature in a unique way, but there are definite similarities between his work and the work of earlier philosophers. Hobbes’ political theory coincides with the political theory of Niccolò Machiavelli, and yet differs in the theory of virtù. Hobbes follows Machiavelli in some important aspects of political theory, and yet expands upon or discards Machiavelli’s ideas in other important aspects. Both men agree that politics directly corresponds to the nature of man and that the concepts of right and wrong are arbitrary and result only from human perspectives and experience. Hobbes focuses on the principle that what is good and what is evil comes from a person’s own interests while Machiavelli emphasizes the point of self-reliance, or virtù. The idea of virtù is opposed to Hobbes’ argument of the human mind in nature. Hobbes states that rulers rise from the need to have a ruler and Machiavelli asserts that rulers arise only because of either fortune or their virtù, meaning qualities they have in their personalities.

In The Prince, Machiavelli combines solid logic and reason with the concepts of virtù and fortune. He says “…a private individual only becomes a ruler, if [he] is either lucky or skillful [virtù]. Both luck and skill enable you to overcome difficulties. Nevertheless, he who relies least on luck has the best prospect of success.” (Machiavelli 18) In this excerpt, Machiavelli addresses the ways that people can come into power. The idea that entry into power comes from either fortune or the virtù of the individual is very evident in The Prince. Machiavelli affirms that even though it may be difficult to come to power based on one’s virtù, it creates an easier time ruling. On the other hand, those men who come to power based on fortune have to understand that just as fortune has been given to them, it can be taken away. In addition, the men who come to power from fortune often do not have the skill or strength to stand on their own when fortune is taken away. Thus, virtù is a more desirable way of coming to power.

Hobbes places the same weight on virtue and virtuous acts as Machiavelli does, but in a different way. Hobbes believes that the inner nature of man, which shows itself in nature, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Hobbes 186) In order for men, who are wretched and horrible by nature, to experience the concept of virtue and good, they must enter into a social contract with each other. Hobbes gives three laws of nature, which help to expound upon his beliefs of virtue being necessary to the commonwealth. This goes along with Machiavelli’s argument that virtù is a necessity to rule effectively. The first law of nature, which Hobbes calls “Fundamental Laws of Nature” is “…that every man, ought to endeavor Peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of War.” (Hobbes 190) This law brings up a connection in the logic of Machiavelli and Hobbes, in which both parties mention that peace should be the goal of the commonwealth or principality, but if it cannot be attained, war is necessary. The idea of a “social contract” is one way that Hobbes expands on and differs from Machiavelli’s idea of achieving virtue. In Machiavelli’s political ideology, the people play little to no part in the state or principality. This is essentially the opposite of Hobbes’ political theory. Hobbes asserts that all men must enter a contract with each other so that the ruler may be able to rule. The only way for men to do this is to give up some of their rights and transfer them to the ruler, so that the ruler may have power. Hobbes states that every man must, in some form, say to every other man “I Authorize and give up my Right of Governing my self, to this Man [the ruler], or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that...
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