Hobbes and Machiavelli – Social Contract Theory

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a British, empiricist philosopher, described his theory of State and the social contract theory in his notable work, Leviathan (1651). At the time of writing, Hobbes was witnessing first-hand, the English Civil War, and this; as well as other key events that were ongoing at the time, such as: the execution of King Charles I, the Glorious Revolution and Parliament’s subsequent increase of power; were heavily influential on Hobbes’ views on humanity and morality, as well as his notions of war and peace, and his overall political philosophy.

In Leviathan Hobbes puts forward his ideas on social contract theory and the State, which are regarded to be the foundation for modern political philosophy. Most of the ideas he sets out are based upon his view of the ‘state of nature’ (this being: life before any form of government, law or society had been established) which he describes as “nasty, brutish and short”.

Hobbes believed that people are inherently selfish and amoral, and as such he believed that in a state of nature, there would be no natural society – meaning no natural rights or laws – and that it would be every man for himself: those with the strength to take what they desired would do so, and the weak would perish.

This pessimistic view of humanity was heavily criticised and countered by one of Hobbes’ contemporaries, John Locke. Locke, also a British empiricist, offered a vastly differentiated view of the state of nature, where he argued that people were inherently moral, and that there would be natural law and morality.

In order to escape from the state of nature (as described by Hobbes), and live in peace, people must consign themselves to a social contract between them, and the Leviathan*, which Hobbes describes as a kind of ‘mortal God’. Under the contract, the people must sacrifice their freedom, and accept the complete control of the Leviathan. In return, the Leviathan will protect them by creating and enforcing law. This is the sole purpose for it’s existence, so it must have the power to do so. Hobbes says in relation to this, that “covenants without the sword, are but words.”.  The Leviathan should ideally be a monarch, as a single ruler is better than sharing power between several.

Once the people have consented to be governed by the Leviathan, they have no rights, save for the right to life** (and subsequently self-preservation), and those which the sovereign deems they may have. The Leviathan also has the right to censor all expression of opinion. This ensures that the Leviathan has complete control over the people, which Hobbes says is necessary, as this is the only way to ensure peace.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), was an Italian philosopher, politician and historian, among other things, who is regarded as the father of political science and of realism. Before Machiavelli, the prominent form of philosophy had been idealism, but Machiavelli ushered in a new kind of more objective, scientific philosophy, concerned with how the world was, rather than how it should be.

This shift from idealism to realism extended beyond philosophy, to art and society in general, and came about as a result of the Italian Renaissance – which would have had a massive influence on Machiavelli’s writing and ideas. The images below illustrate the idealistic style of Dark Ages art, compared to the realistic style of Renaissance art.

An example of Dark Ages art
An example of Dark Ages art
An example of Renaissance art
An example of Renaissance art

Machiavelli described his political philosophy in The Prince (1513), which was dedicated to Lorenzo Medici in the hope that it would win his favour. Due to the purpose for which he wrote it, much of the content of The Prince is perhaps biased, and Machiavelli’s longer work, The Discourses, is much more republican, liberal, and perhaps more representative of Machiavelli’s actual ideas and beliefs.

The Prince is essentially a guidebook for potential rulers – indeed Machiavelli did hope that rulers might read his work and adopt his philosophy – and in it, he gives instruction on how to achieve and maintain power. He also describes the characteristics of a perfect Prince (ruler) and of a perfect government.

Unlike Plato and Aristotle, who both believed power was a God-given right, Machiavelli believed power was there for any who had the power to take it in a free competition. He did not believe that the means used to attain power mattered, only that power was achieved.

In The Prince, Machiavelli introduces the idea that there may be more than one morality; the morality of the prince, and the morality of the people, and that these two moralities may not be compatible with each other (value pluralism). The prince’s morality, he says, must be concerned only with effectiveness. When making a decision, the only factor that the prince should consider is which outcome will be most beneficial for the State: this is his morality. In this sense, the prince is essentially amoral.

He also asserts that the prince should only act out of necessity, not out of pleasure. The prince must not concern himself with actions that will make himself or the people happy, but only with what must be done to benefit the State.

Machiavelli’s philosophy focusses solely on ends, not means: all that matters is how effective the action was, not what the action was. This means that genocide may be justifiable – or even commendable – as long as it is effective. As long as a ruler is successful and powerful, they are good, says Machiavelli; regardless of how ‘moral’ or ethical they are.

There are only really two goals for a prince:

  1. Maintaining power
  2. Maintaining the state (real duty of a true prince)

All that matters is that he is successful in both these areas. The second duty, maintaining the state, is the more important of the two, although obviously the prince can only do this if he has the power to do so.

On the subject of maintaining power, Machiavelli offers the advice that it is “better to be feared than loved”, claiming that a ruler who is always good will perish. He says that a ruler must be as cunning as a fox, and as fierce as a lion, and must have the power and the will to sometimes do bad things. But he must not become hated! Machiavelli advises that a ruler should never take away people’s property, and says that it is better to just kill your enemies, for “men forget the death of their father more easily than the loss of their inheritance”.

He also says that above all, a prince must at least appear religious, as religion – as Machiavelli had noticed from his observations of the Catholic Church; at the time, one of the most powerful and corrupt institutions on Earth – is a powerful tool in controlling the people.

As in Hobbes’ Leviathan, the people have no rights save for those given to them by the prince; although unlike Hobbes, Machiavelli says that even a person’s right to life is subject to the will of the prince. This means murder and torture is acceptable as long as the violence is effective, and benefits the state.


*Originally meaning: a biblical monster of unstoppable power.
** The Leviathan can never overrule a person’s right to life, as people only consented to the social contract in order for this right to be preserved. As the Leviathan’s power ultimately comes from the people, and the social contract, it cannot go against them.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m flashing back to AS level and Doctor Stephen Robinson…

    1. Alex Delaney says:

      Ah I do miss Stephen! (Lydnsey was it?)

      1. Damn straight it was! Would like to point out that I’ve ended up having to use stuff from this module far more than any other since ditching Philosophy….

      2. Alex Delaney says:

        I’ve had to use virtually everything we did in my History and Context of Journalism module, it’s basically just a philosophy module. Loving it, did miss doing philosophy!

      3. There you go an educational early Christmas present! However, I still want to scream every single time somebody mentions Descartes – which when you do French and English is surprisingly often.

      4. Alex Delaney says:

        Though it’s not the same without Lyndsey, of course!

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