The Prince and the Social Contract

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  • Topic: Political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes, Social contract
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  • Published : January 16, 2006
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Power and Authority as Viewed by Hobbes and Machiavelli
Many medieval political thinkers observed that power and authority came first from God and then from a social mandate. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes proposes that power comes from the social mandate first. (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch. 18, pp.230) He makes this assertion on the basis that it is within the human nature to secure its life through banding together with others to form a community. Each community, then, is held together by a common desire for protection from the wild while maintaining isolation of the self from others. (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch. 14, pp.190-94) One person must be able to make decisions on behalf of the community, that person, even if he/she does not enjoy unanimous support, becomes the sovereign. The social status of the sovereign is secondary in importance to the percentage of the population that supports them. Hobbes' concept of authority and power, then, stems from the belief that people have leaders because such people are necessary to maintain the unification of society and thus maintain the protection of the people from the wild. Niccolo Machiavelli had a slightly different idea as to the justification and origin of power and authority. Machiavelli concurs with Hobbes that a sovereign is necessary for the unification of the society. But, rather than being the arbitrary selection of a society, the Machiavellian sovereign is, by necessity, a member of an established and influential family, a man with long blood-lines to other rulers who, by nature of his heredity, has less cause to offend others and thus rules effectively through his urbane nature.(The Prince, Chap II, pp.8) It is the purpose of this paper to examine Hobbes and Machiavelli's conception, definition, and justification of power and authority in a community.

Thomas Hobbes marked the transition from medieval to the modern political thinking in Britain. His Leviathan developed a philosophical vocabulary for the English language by using Anglicized versions of the technical vocabulary employed by Greek and Latin authors. Through careful use of words that signified common ideas in the mind, Hobbes maintained that he avoided the difficulties to which human reasoning is most easily prone and this made possible the articulation of a clear conception of reality (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch.4, pp.100). For Hobbes, the idea of reality is bound to be materialistic, meaning that physical matter and its motion explain all phenomena in the universe and construct the only reality that human beings can experience. The materialists believed that the natural universe could be explained through a study of the motion of bodies and matter through space and time. It was their contention that the entire process of the universe, its meaning, could be derived from such study. (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch.1, pp.85-88)

In his observations of the materialist nature of Man, Hobbes concluded that specific desires, defined as appetites, occur in the human body and are then experienced as discomforts or pains, defined as aversions, which must be conquered. Thus, each of us is motivated to act in ways that we believe most likely to relieve our discomfort and therefore to preserve and promote our own well-being. (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch.6, pp.119-121) Everything we elect to do is determined by this natural proclivity to relieve the physical pressures that encroach upon our bodies. Human preference is only the determination of the will by the strongest present desire. One of the strongest of those desires is to avoid a state of active conflict with others. (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch.6, pp.127) To secure ourselves, Hobbes asserts, people band together and join under contracts with each other to offer mutual respect of body and property while assuring mutual protection from others – thus voluntarily giving up some of our individual interests and freedoms to achieve the advantages of security that only life in a society can provide...
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