in Political Thought:
Hobbes, and Locke
By the end of the
seventeenth century, a revolution in political thinking had occurred that
developed in parallel to the scientific revolution in our 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 universal
conceptions of good and evil. These thinkers argued that churches should no
longer exercise authority in matters of government and that 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 a class or an
'estate', the clergy, the aristocracy or the commoners, rather than as
individual citizens within 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.
The Modern State:
In the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, some kings started to assert their authority over the
competing powers within society. Parliaments were crushed, and the nobility
as well as 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. The
modern state would be secular; churches would no longer
determine state policy.
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)
...how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to
live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner
effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act
entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him
among so much that is evil. (Machiavelli, The Prince)
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 as 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, morality and politics were one. The state’s
purpose was to promote the virtuous life in accord with natural law. The
ideal ruler would be a Christian knight who could provide a role model to
help his people on the path to salvation. Machiavelli had no patience with
theories that sought to shape political life in accordance with ideal
standards. Indeed, he was convinced that utopian visions could bring ruin to
the state. Instead, the ruler should do whatever is necessary to protect the
state from domestic and foreign threats and the unruly passions of his
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 political history. If
they possessed the courage to obey reason and the boldness to take action,
Machiavelli believed that leaders could limit civil war and stabilize the state.
Machiavelli was an empirical theorist, an inspiration to Francis Bacon. He
drew his principles of political behavior from studying history. He
approached politics in the cold light of reason, free of illusions about
human nature and devoid of speculations about utopia.
Machiavelli warned that those rulers who are guided by ideals, who
demonstrate compassion and goodness, will be destroyed by their rivals. The
ruler should ignore issues of morality or immortality and instead choose a
course of action based on rational 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)
on the Net
Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live
without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition
which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man….No
arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear,
and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty,
brutish, and short"
(Hobbes, Leviathan, 1.18).
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 violent
realities of human nature. 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, Hobbes
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 their
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. Society in the
state of nature in Hobbes’ view 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.
In such condition there is no place for industry,
because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the
earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by
sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such
things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account
of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all,
continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary,
poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (Hobbes, from Leviathan)
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.
Hobbes, from Leviathan, Part
One; Chaps 13-14, Chapter 13, paragraph 9 (1651) (Diagram) (Condensed version) (complete text) Thomas Hobbes and the political philosophy of
'Leviathan' (BBC Radio) Seventeenth Century English Political Thought
(Mr. Rogers’ Powerpoint)
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it,
which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all
mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no
one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.
(Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Ch. II, sec. 6 )
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 place 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.
Locke, excerpts from Second
Treatise on Government, (1689): "Of the
State of Nature"; "Of the Ends
of Political Society" at Hanover:)
Some Thoughts Concerning Education Seventeenth
Century English Political Thought (Mr. Rogers’ Powerpoint)