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The Compatibility of Hobbes and Machiavelli

October 7, 2010

Hobbes and Machiavelli are revered by historians for their roles in shaping political philosophy. But how similar are the doctrines of the two men? Do they differ greatly or are they very compatible? A full cross analysis of the two men would require an extensive research paper, but I will attempt to offer a brief comparison here.

As I read through Machiavelli’s The Prince and Hobbes’ Leviathan, the first difference that I note is their beliefs in the impunity of a ruler (or to use Hobbes’ phrase, sovereign). Machiavelli’s essay spends much of its time laying out what conduct he considers to be correct for a ruler. While he does state that it is better to be loved than to be feared, he takes care to point out that a ruler should still avoid hatred, and should do this playing demonstrating his competency, or virtu (Wootton, 38). In addition, Machiavelli believes that a ruler can be wicked, and worthy of scorn, and he lists Agathocles as an example (Wootton, 23). Hobbes, by contrast, believes that a ruler can do anything without being unjust to his subjects, since he considers that every man has “given up thy right to him [the ruler] and author[ized]  all his actions in like manner” (Wootton, 175). Thus, a first crucial difference between Hobbes and Machiavelli emerge; while Machiavelli advocates immoral actions in the usage of power, he believes that a ruler can be immoral towards his subjects (Agathocles), whereas Hobbes believes that it impossible for a ruler to be unjust towards his subjects due to them having made a covenant with the sovereign, but the sovereign having not made one with them.

One area in which Hobbes and Machiavelli are similar is in their view of humanity. Both take on a generally poor outlook. Machiavelli writes that men are “ungrateful, fickle, deceptive, and deceiving, avoiders of danger, eager to gain” (Wootton, 35). Similarly, Hobbes writes that the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”(Wootton, 159). Hobbes outlook is especially bleak, as he states that the natural state of man is to be at war, with no guarantee of security. (Wootton,159).  While the two men’s opinions of humanity are similar in that they both hold a generally negative view, they differ in the severity of their opinion. Hobbes descriptions lead to a bleak, almost hopeless outlook, in which the security of a sovereign whom cannot make an unjust action would be preferable to that of a free state in which men fear for their life from violent death. Machiavelli’s view, by contrast, gives some credence to human life, merely settling to label them as hypocritical and unreliable.

One final area in which I will compare these two men is in their belief in what human virtues should be acquired. Here, Hobbes states that men should be intellectual, have natural wit, discretion, and craft (Wootton, 138-139). Machiavelli consistently upholds virtu (a vague combination of skill, power, and manliness) as the most important of all virtues, but also states that men should be frugal with money, not hesitate to be cruel, and have no scruples about lying (Wootton, 34-37). In some ways these ideals are compatible; Machiavelli probably believes that a man who possesses virtu has wit, discretion and craft for instance. In addition, since the sovereign cannot be unjust, Hobbes’ logically can be presumed to believe that a ruler should lie and be cruel from time to time (indeed, lying could be considered to be a form of discretion).

To summarize my post, I have found that while the two men occasionally differ in schematics, such the extent of a ruler’s impunity, their beliefs as espoused in The Prince and The leviathan are actually quite compatible on the points which I examined.  Both take a bleak view of humanity (though they differ in their extent) and both also suggest similar virtues for a ruler, though Machiavelli is generally more concerned with this than Hobbes. In general, I found the two men to have doctrines that are not incompatible with one another.

 

Source:

Wootton, David. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub, 1996. Print.

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