Revolution in Political Thought:
Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke


            By the end of the seventeenth century, a revolution in political thinking had occurred that developed in parallel to the revolution in Western thinkers’ perception of the physical universe. These political scientists regarded government as a purely human creation.  Its authority did not derive from God, and its actions should not be measured by values originating in a higher world. These thinkers argued that churches should exercise no authority in matters of government and the state was not responsible for assisting the church in the saving of souls. The new cosmology and the new political philosophies rested on their own intellectual foundations, not principles from a higher world requiring clerical clarification. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the dissolution of the old medieval political order and the emergence of the modern, centralized, territorial state.

            During the Middle Ages kings had to share political power with feudal lords, the clergy and representative assemblies. People saw themselves as members of an estate-- clergy, aristocracy or commoner-- rather than as citizens of a state. The Church regarded Europe as a commonwealth in which spiritual concerns prevailed over secular authority. The King received his power from God and had to rule in accordance with God’s commands as interpreted by the clergy.

            In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, kings successfully asserted their authority over the competing clergy and nobility. Parliaments were crushed, and lords and ecclesiastical authorities were made subject to royal control. Features of the modern state began to emerge. In its maturity, a modern state would be supreme in its own territory with a strong central government that issues laws which apply throughout the land. The modern state would maintain and pay a permanent army of professional soldiers as well as employ trained bureaucrats who would collect taxes, enforce laws and administer justice. It would be a secular state in which churches would not determine state policy.


Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)


            This Florentine statesman and political scientist gave expression to the new direction in which politics was moving in his great works of political theory The Prince (1513) and Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius (1516). Machiavelli was a keen observer of the politics of the city-states that fought each other for power in Northern Italy during the last part of the fifteenth century.  He regarded the Italian city-states, ruled by men whose authority rested solely on their cunning and effective use of force, as a new phenomenon which traditional idealistic political theory could not adequately explain. Italian princes looked to their own interests, employed force ruthlessly, and made no effort to justify their policies on religious or idealistic grounds. Powerful cities devoured weaker ones, and diplomacy was riddled with intrigue, betrayal and bribery. Italy was frequently over run by foreign invaders. Survival depended upon alertness, cleverness and strength.

           Medieval theorists had called for an earthly realm that accorded with standards revealed by God. Classical theorists sought to base the state on moral norms apprehended by reason. Machiavelli believed that what people wanted was not a just or virtuous state but a secure and safe one. He wanted rulers to understand how to preserve and expand the state’s power and to provide security in a dangerous world.

          According to the classical ideal, state ethics and politics were one. The state’s purpose was to promote the virtuous life in accord with natural law. Christianity sought leaders who would provide role models and help teach their people the way to salvation. Machiavelli had no patience with theories that sought to shape political life in accordance with ideal standards. Indeed, utopian visions would bring ruin to the state. The ruler should do whatever is necessary to protect the state from domestic and foreign threats and the passions of his subjects.

           Machiavelli had a bleak vision of human nature. He thought humans were naturally selfish, insatiably greedy, corrupt, cowardly, faithless, base, dishonest, and violent. Deception and coercion are necessary to hold in check this flawed human nature which threatens civil order. Machiavelli believed that this bestial human nature could never be altered. However, because of the simple fact that human behavior was inalterable, he argued that human behavior could be accurately predicted if we studied our political history. Machiavelli believed that institutions could be created which would lead to the stability of the state if we possessed the courage to obey reason and the boldness to take action. Machiavelli was an empirical theorist, an inspiration to Bacon. He drew his principles of political behavior from data. He approached politics in the cold light of reason, free of illusions about human nature and devoid of speculations about utopia. 

           He warned that those rulers who are guided by ideals, who show compassion and attempt to be good, will be destroyed by their rivals. The ruler should ignore issues of morality or immortality and instead choose a course of action based on his analysis of a particular situation. All means are permitted the prince if the state’s survival is at stake. The wise prince gives the appearance of being virtuous, for such a pretense will assist him in governing his subjects. But when the security of the state requires it, the prince is prepared to abandon all virtue. In the world of politics, blunders- not crimes- are unpardonable.

            Machiavelli did not intend to provide guidelines for a tyrant who merely sought to gain personal power for private ends. He had no love for despots. Rather, he wanted the prince to identify with the people, to aspire to do what is best for the state in its quest for survival and stability. He resorts to terror for reasons of state, never for private passion, pride, whim or petty revenge.

            Machiavelli’s interpretation of history and politics is devoid of any overarching Christian meaning. He even ignored the question of whether the Prince would be punished on the Day of Judgment for violating Christian doctrine. He further believed that Christianity’s glorification of humble and contemplative men who were contemptuous of the worldly life had been detrimental to the state’s well being. On the other hand, Machiavelli noted that the rulers of the classical age had valued personal achievement, courage, strength, pride, glory, civic responsibility and patriotism, fostering the development of a strong, vigorous republic. The greatest rulers exercised virtu: not moral virtue, but the boldness, slyness and intelligence to take the necessary action at the most opportune time. Fortune would smile on those who acted most intelligently and decisively. To Machiavelli, religion only had value because it was socially useful. The wise ruler could use religion to unite his subjects and to promote civic obedience. Rulers employ pious fictions for worthwhile civic ends.

           Machiavelli broke with the medieval world’s division of the universe into higher and lower worlds. He did for political thought what Galileo had done for scientific thought. Medieval thinkers held that the ruler derived his power from God and had a religious obligation to govern in accordance with God’s precepts. The best state assisted in the saving of souls. Machiavelli ascribed no divine origin or purpose to the state but saw it entirely as a natural entity. ‘Machiavellian’ has become an adjective used to describe politicians who will stop at nothing to achieve their political ends, but Machiavelli’s true significance is understood in his removal of political thought from a religious frame of reference and his insistence on looking at the state in the detached and dispassionate manner of a political scientist.

Excerpts from The Prince

Notes on The Prince and Discourses on the First Decade of Totus Livius (1516)

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

            Hobbes was an English philosopher and political theorist who, like Machiavelli, had a gloomy view of human nature. He rejected religious interpretations of political life and sought to fashion a theory of the state that accorded with the realities of human society. He paid no mind to the medieval theologians’ belief that political communities should conform to God’s revelation, and he regarded the attempts of ancient philosophers to design commonwealths on an ideal of human perfection as useless utopian dreams. He sought political arrangements that were realistic and realizable, that accorded with the way people actually behave. Focusing on the dark side of human nature, both thinkers believed society was threatened by insatiable human desires and ambitions. In contrast with the idealistic Plato, who fashioned a state based on standards of justice and virtue, the realistic Hobbes fashioned a state intended to provide security in an unsafe and violent world.

            Hobbes wrote Leviathan (1651) during the agonies of the English Civil War. He became convinced that absolute monarchy was the most logical and desirable form of government. He sought to base his political theory upon scientific principles. He believed that the construction of a proper government depends on adherence to set rules as regular and timeless as the rules of geometry. His basis axioms reflected a bleak view of human nature: people are innately selfish, grasping, envious, distrustful and treacherous. Competition and dissension, rather than cooperation, characterize human relations, and human society will naturally and inevitably disintegrate into violence. Passion governs action more than reason. People are driven by avarice to sacrifice peace and virtue to power, but people are also driven by insecurity and fear to take power to safeguard their lives, property and status. In Hobbes’ view, society in the state of nature  was an incessant war of all against all. Hobbes’ theory of government was intended to contain the strife provoked by a flawed human nature. Contemporary society is never far removed from the ferocity, fear and insecurity that marked the state of nature. 

            Hobbes derived the need for the state from human nature itself. Desiring peace and security, each person contracts to renounce the freedom of his natural condition.  To preserve their lives and property, men surrender their rights to one ruler, or to an assembly, and agree to submit to the will of authority. The rulers instill a fear of punishment in the subjects, for people are dissuaded from harming each other only when they realize that the punishment outweighs the possible gain from a criminal act. The ruler must be granted absolute authority, for if the ruler’s power is shackled, he cannot protect the lives of the subjects. The people cannot call their ruler to account; they have no legitimate justification for rebellion. The sovereign must have absolute power or society will collapse, and the anarchy of the state of nature will return. The possibility of abuse of sovereign power was preferable to the alternative of civil war and anarchy. Killing a monarch was never lawful or praiseworthy.

            Hobbes’ true significance lies in his secular and rational approach to politics. He rejects the authority of the church and makes no attempt to fashion the earthly city in accordance with Christian teaching. Revealed religion is no longer the source of political authority. Although Hobbes supported absolute monarchy, he dismissed the idea that the monarch’s power derived from God. The state was a human invention organized by humans to deal with human problems, and its legitimacy derived from human authority. Hobbes rejected the idea that a subject could disobey a ruler’s orders if they conflicted with divine law.

            During early modern times, the great expansion of commerce and capitalism spurred the new individualism already pronounced in Renaissance culture. Group ties had been shattered by competition and accelerating social mobility. Hobbes described an emerging society in which people confronted each other in a competitive economy.   In this emerging capitalist society people are neither bound by a transcendental system of morality nor by the rules and customs that support a fixed order.  Hobbes championed the hereditary absolute monarchy, holding that only the unlimited authority of a sovereign could contain the human passions that threatened the social order.

            Hobbes belief that self-interest dominated human behavior makes him the first major theorist of modern individualism. His absolute state is antithetical to the spirit of modern liberalism.  Even so, the people, not God, are the source of the ruler’s authority.

History of Philosophy: Hobbes

Seventeenth Century English Political Thought (Mr. Rogers’ Powerpoint)

John Locke (1632-1704)


            An English physician, statesman, philosopher and political theorist, Locke shared Hobbes’ rational and secular approach to political thought but diverged from Hobbes’ conceptions of human nature and the state. Locke regarded the individual as essentially good and rational and rejected Hobbes’ absolute state. Seeking to preserve individual freedom, Locke advocated constitutional government, in which the power to govern derives from the consent of the governed and the state’s authority is limited by agreement with the people.  Locke’s psychological and educational thought was also instrumental in shaping the liberal tradition.

            Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690) was written to vindicate the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England. It enunciated the principle of natural rights, attacked arbitrary government, and affirmed government by consent of the people. He gave theoretical expression to what many progressive Britons had come to regard as inextricable components of the English liberal tradition: a rejection of monarchical absolutism in favor of parliamentary government under the rule of law and the protection of private property.

            Unlike Hobbes who saw human beings as selfish creatures who promote perpetual strife with their relentless pursuit of creature comforts, fame and power, Locke held that individuals participate in a moral order whose existence can be grasped through reason. Locke believed that rational people could recognize that their behavior ought to correspond to the requirements of the moral order. They are capable of transcending narrow selfishness and respecting the inherent dignity of others. Locke believed that the human ‘state of nature’ before the creation of the state had been free, rational, and equal. God had not set some people above others. Locke considered it to be self-evident that all men, because they belong to the same species and have the same nature, are created equal. One person should not be placed in subjection to another.

            The law of nature is the law of reason.  But since men are capable of acting contrary to reason, they do violate the law of nature by infringing upon the rights of others. Since there is no authority to restrain people from such behavior, wronged parties have the right to punish the evildoer. The degree of punishment and the amount of reparation should be dictated by reason and conscience and should be in proportion to the transgression. However, a society wherein each person acts as judge is ripe for further tensions. Therefore, men consent to organize a civil government and to submit to the will of the majority. Locke rejects the idea that rulers derive their power from God. He asserts that all legitimate authority derives from the consent of the majority.

            Locke regarded people as rational beings endowed by nature and God with fundamental rights: the right to their life, liberty and property. Locke’s theory of natural rights is derived from the ancient stoical conception of natural law that applies to all human beings. He also drew on the medieval Christian view that God’s eternal law was a law of reason apprehensible by the mind. In establishing a government, people do not surrender these natural rights to any authority; instead, the new political society is formed to recognize and secure these rights. A ruling authority that attempts to govern absolutely and arbitrarily fails to fulfill the purpose for which it has been established. Under these circumstances, the people have the moral right to dissolve the government.

            This recognition of a law above human law, which people and governing authorities are obligated to obey, is the cornerstone of modern liberalism. Freedom exists and is meaningful only if it is bound by the obligation to achieve a reasonable and moral order. The state is constitutional. It follows established rules and sets barriers to arbitrary dictates. The legislature has greater power than the monarch does. Locke’s belief in reason and freedom, his theory of natural rights and his assertion of the right of rebellion against unjust authority had a profound effect upon the Enlightenment and the liberal revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His tenets that property is a natural right and that state interference with personal property leads to the destruction of liberty also became core principles of modern liberalism.

History of Philosophy: Locke

Seventeenth Century English Political Thought (Mr. Rogers’ Powerpoint)

Traditional Religion Assailed

The philosophes waged an unremitting assault on traditional Christianity, denouncing it for harboring superstition and fostering fanaticism and persecution.


Relying on the facts of experience, as Bacon had taught, the philosophes dismissed miracles, angels, and devils as violations of natural laws and figments of human imagination that could not be substantiated by normal evidence. With science as an ally, the philosophes challenged Christianity’s claim that it possessed infallible truths, and they ridiculed theologians for compelling obedience to doctrines that defied reason.


The philosophes also assailed Christianity’s view of human nature as evil and human beings as helpless without God’s assistance. They believed that society’s leaders should work to improve the possibility of human happiness on earth rather than focusing exclusively on the goal of salvation.


While some philosophes were atheists, most were deists, who rejected miracles, mysteries, prophecies and other fundamentals of revealed Christianity and sought to fashion a natural religion that accorded with reason and science.

To deists it seemed reasonable that this magnificently designed universe, operating with clockwork precision, had been created at a point in time by an all-wise Creator. But once God had set the universe in motion, he had refrained from interfering with its operations. In addition to an argument for the existence of God from design, the deists argued that there must have been a first cause to reality.

Deists rejected entirely revelation, miracles and original sin. They denied that the Bible was God’s revelation, rejected clerical authority, and dismissed Christian mysteries, prophecies and miracles as violations of a lawful natural order. To the philosophes, Jesus was not divine but an inspiring teacher of morality. Many deists still considered themselves Christians, but the clergy regarded their views with horror.

English freethinkers, John Toland (1670-1722) and Matthew Tindal (1657-1733) attacked clerical authority and rejected religious dogmas that seemed to contradict common sense. Their advocacy of a natural religion, one that accorded with reason, was the foundation of deism. Toland argued that if the truth of an idea could not be demonstrated by reason, we should reserve judgment. Tindal advocated a natural religion: one that valued reason, made people cognizant of their moral duties, condemned persecution and had little to do with priests, miracles and revelation.


France had its own tradition of religious skepticism and natural theology in the works of Montaigne, Bayle, and Montesquieu. The most famous of the French Deists was Voltaire, who acquired a taste for Newtonian science, and reinforcement of Deistic inclinations, during a two-year visit to England starting in 1726.

French Deists also included Maximilien Robespierre and Rousseau. For a short period of time during the French Revolution the Cult of the Supreme Being was the state religion of France.

Epistemology, Psychology, Education

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke argued that humans are not born with innate ideas (the idea of God, principles of good and evil, and rules of logic, for example) divinely implanted in their minds as Descartes had maintained. Instead, the human mind is a blank slate (a tabula rasa) upon which sensations derived from contact with the phenomenal world are imprinted. Knowledge is derived from experience.

Our observation employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected upon by ourselves, is that which supplies our understanding. (Locke Essay On Human Understanding)

Locke’s epistemology is a principal foundation of the school of philosophy known as empiricism, which is closely associated with British thinkers. Following Locke, British empiricists rejected Descartes’ theory that self-evident ideas are imprinted on the mind. When the mind transcends the realm of concrete experience, they said, it engages in flights of fancy, vain dreams, and idle speculation: barriers to the accumulation of knowledge. Building on Locke’s empiricism, Enlightenment thinkers held that people should not dwell on unanswerable questions, particularly sterile theological ones, but we should seek practical knowledge that enlightens human beings and gives us control over our environment. They argued that all theories must be analyzed, judged, and confirmed on the basis of actual human experience.


If there are no innate ideas, then human beings, contrary to Christian doctrine, are not born with original sin: we are not depraved by nature. All that individuals are derives from their particular experiences. If people are provided with a proper environment and education, they will behave morally and they will become intelligent and productive citizens. By their proper use of reason, people could bring their beliefs into harmony with natural law. Reform minded philosophes preferred to believe that evil stemmed from faulty institutions and poor education, both of which could be remedied, rather than from defective human nature.

Religious Toleration, Freedom of the Press, Humanitarianism


The philosophes regard religious persecution as humanity’s most depraved offense against reason. The philosophes waged a relentless campaign for toleration, continuing a struggle initiated by enlightened 16th and 17th c. thinkers and statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic: Spinoza, William Penn, Roger Williams, Richard Overton and Pierre Bayle. Locke argued that since the doctrines of faith could not be proved, no one has the right to compel others to believe.


Voltaire said, “It is clear that every private individual who persecutes a man, his brother, because he is not of the same opinion, is a monster....”


Censorship was a serious and ever present problem for the philosophes. Both ecclesiastical and ministerial authorities condemned their ideas. Their books were burned, and frequently they were imprisoned. They argued that freedom of thought and the press, meaning everything in print, was essential to liberty.


The philosophes’ humanitarianism led to attacks on various forms of brutality tolerated by the state: torture to extract confessions, cruel and unusual punishments, slavery and war. Arguing that torture was not simply inhumane but a totally irrational way of determining guilt or innocence, the philosophes called for the elimination of torture from codes of criminal justice, and several European lands abolished torture in the eighteenth century. They denounced war as a barbaric affront to reason.  They agitated in several countries for abolishment of slavery and the slave trade, arguing that the practice was as destructive to the slave owner as it was to the victims.