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Hobbes Machiavelli and Aristotle

Unlike the idealistic ancient philosophers such as Plato, who discusses politics in “the context of things above politics” (Machiavelli vii), the modern philosophers, Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, take a realistic approach in explaining political actions and outcomes. Considered to be among the first social scientists, they both try to delve deep into the nature of mankind and its relationship to politics. In the course of doing so, both authors seem to believe that virtue and morality, good and bad, just and unjust, are all abstract concepts that exist only because of perception and consequences.

However, each of the authors resorts to different approaches in exploring the origin and nature of virtue and morality, and in explaining what is meant by “good” or “bad”, and “just” or “unjust. ” While Hobbes’ view on virtue and morality is deeply rooted in self interest, which can be realized through covenant and guided laws, Machiavelli believes that self-reliance is a necessity for virtuous acts which are desirable but not necessary. The concepts of virtue, morality, good or bad, just or unjust are all linked together almost like an undecipherable mesh.

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One can hardly talk about one of these concepts without including the other since they all appear to be synonymous. The idea of virtue, in particular, which seems to encapsulate all the other concepts, has been at the center of the interests of both ancient and modern philosophers, including Machiavelli and Hobbes. For the purpose of our argument, we will assume that whatever is held to be virtuous is, by definition, good, just and moral. The absence of virtue implies the presence of vice, which is held to be bad, immoral and unjust.

Bearing this philosophically reasonable assumption in mind, we will proceed to analyzing the views of both authors with regard to the aforementioned concepts. The notion of virtuous acts is relative and is based on one’s perception. As opposed to earlier philosophers such as Aristotle who associate virtue to the attainment of the highest good (Carmola spring 2009), Hobbes and Machiavelli consider virtuous acts as simply qualities that attract praise from others. In other words, both authors are concerned with ends rather than means.

For instance, in chapter 15 of The Prince, Machiavelli highlights certain characteristics for which “men and especially Princes are praised or blamed” (Machiavelli 61). Honesty, for example, is considered a virtue only because other people praise it. This implies that Men are generally praised for what are perceived as virtuous qualities and are blamed for what are held as vices. Machiavelli argues that “since human condition do not permit” one to have all these qualities, it is necessary for one “to be prudent so as to avoid those vices. Chapter 15 seeks to portray the fact that men are generally impressed by appearance and they tend to praise virtue even though most of them might not posses it. So it is the onus of the Prince and everyone else to be able to manipulate the perception of people in order to maintain self preservation. This in essence, is a clear manifestation of Machiavelli’s seemingly pragmatic understanding of the origin and nature of virtue.

Hobbes argues that it is in the interest of man, whose natural condition is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” to enter into “covenant” in order to exercise or experience virtuous acts that are guided by law and order (Hobbes 186). He believes that the idea of virtue has no place outside a civil state where man’s actions are marred by “competition, diffidence and glory” – whose end result is nothing but perpetual war and quarrel (Hobbes 185). In such a life, nothing can be virtuous since any man and every man has the right to everything.

Therefore, Hobbes believes that the concept of just and unjust (seen as virtue and vice respectively) can only make sense when there is some kind of a “coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenant” (Hobbes 202) In other words, “where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice” (Hobbes 188). This is what leads Hobbes to put forward the nineteen laws of nature which, to some extent, lay the foundation of virtuous acts that are necessary for self preservation. A marked difference between Hobbes and Machiavelli is with regards to clear cut definitions of virtuous acts such as justice.

Hobbes explains the source of justice and injustice through his fourth law of nature. He defines injustice as “the not performance of covenant” and maintains that “whatsoever is not unjust is just” (Hobbes 202). He also believes that the notion of just and unjust comes in various forms; he distinguishes justice of men (manners) from justice of actions (Hobbes 207). As their names imply, the former signifies “conformity or inconformity of manners to reason” while the latter is associated with actions (Hobbes 207).

He also goes through the rigorous exercise of further dividing justice of action into two categories: commutative and distributive Unlike Hobbes, Machiavelli does not resort to explicitly defining terms or formulating a definition of justice based on self-interest; neither did he include it among the eleven listed pairs of moral qualities in chapter 15 – probably for strategic reasons of his own. For Machiavelli, justice is “nothing more than what a person’s prudence tells him he must acquire for himself, or must submit to”, in order for self-preservation (Machiavelli xi).

This is a much more simplified and profound definition that seems to be relatively more significant in the contemporary world. Similarly, both authors seem to maintain slightly different views with regards to what is perceived as just and unjust. It could be argued that Hobbes’ view of justice parallels the first definition of justice in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, while Machiavelli’s view about justice closely relates to the definition put forward by Thrasymachus, also in Book 1 of The Republic .

While Hobbes acknowledges that “Justice is the constant will of giving to every man his own” (Hobbes 202), Machiavelli indirectly maintains that justice revolves around consolidating the Prince’s state. The ultimate justice for Machiavelli is that which serves the interest and defense of the state and its ruler. Hence, Machiavelli’s position seems to buttress the idea of justice as simply “the advantage of the stronger” (Plato 15). The term “stronger” should not be literally taken for granted in this context because its translation in Greek, kreitton, could “cover all sorts of superiority”, such as “goodness” or “excellence” (Plato 444).

Regarding the question of what is good or bad, both authors seem to believe that it all depends on one’s perception and circumstance. But Machiavelli appears to be much more prudent in addressing this question than Hobbes, who seems to be more sophisticated. Of course it is easy to grammatically distinguish “good” from “bad” – they are antonyms. But it is rather difficult to determine what is “good” or “bad” in real life. Hobbes claims that good and evil (bad) are “names that signify our appetites and aversions” (Hobbes 100). They vary depending on one’s state of condition.

But he also asserts that “all men agree” that all his “laws of nature (which are the paths to peace) are good and so are moral virtues, and their contrary vices, evil” (Hobbes 216). This statement seems to be in contradiction with his earlier proposition about what is good or bad. According to Machiavelli, it is not the question of whether one is good or not that is relevant but how to appear good when necessary. Machiavelli argues that the Prince should “learn to be able not to be good and to use this and not use it according to necessity” (Machiavelli 61).

This is a profound statement that goes a long way in criticizing the idea of “good” life. At first glance, it would appear as if Machiavelli is advocating for the need to be cruel and deceptive. But a much closer objective reading would reveal that he is mainly trying to argue that metaphysics is inconsistent with real life. Thus, virtue as an abstract concept can never be a reliable and effective guide for political or even social actions. The Prince should therefore be concerned with maintaining his well being and the well being of the state.

And the best way to go about doing that is relying on one’s own prowess. Machiavelli’s metaphor about the lion and the fox enables us to understand how relying on oneself can largely determined virtuous acts. He recommends that the Prince be able to meticulously combine the quality of the cunning fox in recognizing the snares with the strength of the lion in frightening the wolves (Machiavelli 69). Another major, yet less profound difference between Hobbes and Machiavelli is their discourse and attitude towards morality.

Although both authors seem to care less about ethics, Machiavelli’s heavy reliance on history as a basis for his political theory rather than on some abstract and pessimistic thoughts, makes it possible to easily grasp his stance on morality. In the context of religion, Machiavelli sees morality simply as a form of personal strength and spirit that gives one the courage to carry out his mission. He makes reference to biblical narratives to illustrate his argument.

For instance, the popular story of David and Goliath demonstrates the necessity of one to be self-reliant and spirited in order to carry out virtuous acts in the face of adversity. The young David refuses Saul’s offer to arm him in confronting Goliath “saying that with them [i. e. the arms] he could not give a good account of himself, and so he would rather meet the enemy with his sling and knife” (Machiavelli 56). The spectacular victory of David over Goliath is largely perceived as a virtuous act, and it is meant to teach a moral lesson from a religious perspective.

But once again, Machiavelli demonstrates that morality, as a form of virtue, really comes about with a sense of prudence and self-reliance. As opposed to Machiavelli, Hobbes seems to have rather mundane thoughts on morality in the context of religion, despite the fact that he has a whole chapter titled “Of Religion” (Hobbes 168). That is not to say that Hobbes does not touch upon morality at all. In fact, he talks about the golden rule, otherwise known as the ethic of reciprocity, by saying the following words: “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thyself” (Hobbes 214).

This idea, shared by many world religions, seems to occupy an important part of the major theme of the Leviathan. It is, however, difficult as a reader to reconcile Hobbes’ pessimism and attitude towards religion. The least that one could ascertain from his discourse is that the extent of man’s moral actions depends on whether he finds himself in Hobbes’ famous natural condition of mankind (where there is no political authority), or in a commonwealth. Hobbes would argue that there is no question of morality in the natural condition, but it is man’s duty to obey those in authority in a commonwealth.

In spite of the outlined differences and similarities between Hobbes and Machiavelli, their books, Leviathan and The Prince respectively, have undoubtedly heavily influenced both political discourse and political outcomes in the contemporary world. The Prince may have been written primarily for Lorenzo de Medici but its impacts can be seen in many parts of the world today even as far as the West Coast of Africa. The Leviathan has had a particularly profound influence on the foundation of modern law (Carmola Spring 2009). Indeed, there is nothing more powerful than ideas.

Based on the ideas of these two modern philosophers, we can reasonably conclude that the concepts of virtue and morality, and the notion of what is good or bad, just or unjust, cannot as yet, or may never even be, universally defined, determined or agreed upon. One was hopeful that Socrates would finally define virtue in its entirety, only to realize the opposite after flipping through the last page of the Meno. Similarly, the dialogues in The Republic also portray the intricacies involved in defining or determining justice and injustice.

Almost the entire book is about Socrates trying to prove that justice is something that is both virtuous and desirable. But the reader is left perplexed after reading the last sentence of The Republic. If this great philosopher found it difficult to even define virtue, who are we to comment on it? Therefore, this essay should be seen as a humble attempt in tying to make sense of these concepts and to show, with reasonable interpretation and assumption, that Hobbes and Machiavelli are concerned with a virtuous act only as far as it is an end in itself.


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