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Views on Political Realism of Machiavelli and Hobbes

Realism is a movement that represents reality as it is. Realists basically say that they believe in a correspondence theory of truth. Therefore this paper will discuss realism, what it really is, who the proponents of realism are, and the implications of realism together with the similarities and differences in views on political realism between Machiavelli and Hobbes. The paper will further discuss the various ways in which both Machiavelli and Hobbes try to analyze and discuss the dictates of governing bodies and or institutions, sources of authority, religion, and ethics. The paper will indicate how these two great philosophers tend to agree but often differ on varying principles and or tenets of practicality for human or societal governing bodies. This paper will also show the complexity of rational thought that is witnessed between these two philosophers Machiavelli and Hobbes and explain how the nature of ethics becomes a dynamic force that divides if not unite them.

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The politics in Machiavelli’s “The Prince” shows the lawless manner of governing and cruelty that seeks to suppress the subjects being governed by their rulers. Machiavelli tries to make an argument for the unrealistic ways of moral guidance of these totalitarian behaviors of the ruling class. Machiavelli by this means tries to brief us about how rules do not really matter in the quest for both dominance and power over the masses. To begin, Machiavelli is not deflected by utopian dreams of the question of good and bad in government. This is the way Hobbes and Machiavelli compare in their quest to discover the best way to rule through realism.

The term realism was first used in the early interpretations of Greek philosophy. “Realism” was here contrasted with the two terms “nominalism” and “conceptualism” and was thus referred to as “realism about universals.” The term universals could be applied to a lot of things not only to refer to one particular thing; example, purple, character, house, and many more as opposed to Yeats or Greece. (Harris 2003, 64). Plato is credited as the proponent of realism, and realism lays claim that the universals are there. ‘Nominalism’ on one hand attests that universals are “non-existent”, and that they are only words that we use to describe specific items but they do not name anything. Whereas ‘Conceptualism’ opposes this belief and claims that these universals do really exist; but if only they are instantiated in specific things and that they never separately exist. Harris 2003, 50-54). This disagreement over realism is largely disputable in contemporary philosophy and has been for a long time.

Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes are two of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known. Hobbes is believed to have been born in England around 1588. His most famous work written in 1651 was ‘Leviathan’. He discussed the innate laws of man and nature and the ideal state, and many more. Niccolo Machiavelli on the other hand was born in Florence Italy a time when his country was under foreign rule in the year 1469. His most famous work titled ‘The Prince’ discusses both an ideal ruler and state. He describes the perfect prince (an image of cruelty and cunning). These two philosophers hold opposing views, Thomas Hobbes generally advocated a minimalist government in which the state meddled with the lives of the citizens only when absolutely necessary. Machiavelli’s on the other hand in his book ‘The Prince’, presents his ideal government as one led by a strong monarch and loyalists or fearful subjects. Hobbes’ idea of an ideal government was one of the little proportions. The entire citizenry has a promise with their ruler or a covenant with God. This covenant with the ruler requires that the citizen surrender their right to govern him/her self and give that to their leader or ruler.

Hobbes and Machiavelli believed that humans are selfish, un-intelligent, and also corrupt. The former is more critical than the latter, in that Hobbes further says that the masses are too dense to take care of themselves. On government, they would both agree. Hobbes also deems that people are too stupid to govern themselves and what they need is a king to rule and make decisions for them, a position Machiavelli also takes. Machiavelli further states that a ruler must do anything in his power to gain both political status and even absolute power. (Walsh 2003, 50). I strongly disagree with both philosophers’ views which I believe should not exist. People are not daft and they must be given a chance. The question is, if the masses are that dumb, corrupt, and selfish, are Machiavelli and Hobbes too?

Machiavelli produced in the book “The Prince”, an exposition which for all intents and purposes asserted that morality has nothing or maybe little to do with politics. Hobbes does not agree with Aristotle’s study of the universe, his logic that claims that man’s existence was both brutal and harsh before societies existed. He even tries to justify this argument in his work “Leviathan” that it is the society that created the idea of justice.

Machiavelli existed in a period where corruption, chaos, and philosophical innovations were the order of the day. In his work “The Prince” he justifies this by claiming that there is no morality about politics. He even further dismisses the connection between ethics and politics as presented by Aristotle and he says that it is unrealistic in this world. His arguments are not in favor of despots nor does Machiavelli discredit the competence of republican governments. Both of them consent that there are other forms of governments there are favored because they do not encourage tyranny. He also acknowledged that trying to force a government to behave according to the tenets of Aristotelian principles was pointless and not practical. He tried to put up a political theory based on his understanding of the political situation of his native Italy.

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Niccolo Machiavelli holds the opinion that an individual should by appearance be virtuous even if he is not one; his idea of an ideal citizen is in accordance with Hobbes’ idea of a citizen who is familiar with the nature of sovereign power. Machiavelli, in contrast, suggests specific criteria in terms of authority. He does not propose a dictatorial rule for mankind, he instead believes in leaders and wants a sense of righteousness and fairness. In certain aspects they agree’ but Machiavelli’s proposed society is more feasible and practical than that of Hobbes.

While the two philosophers agree that there should be a sovereign rule, they disagree on critical assumptions. Hobbes unifies politics and religion claiming that this is the best for the ethical good of the society; Machiavelli does not agree and instead proposes that the end should justify the means. Hobbes’ prospect of a citizen who understands the basis and nature of sovereign power is better than Machiavelli’s whose ideal citizen is one who has absolute trust in what the ruler does.

Machiavelli takes a cynical view of who should rule the state and this is obvious from this quote: “Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it (Viroli 1998, 134). This statement relays a lot concerning Machiavelli’s stand on the nature of rulers. The ideal leader according to him is a person who derives authority from sheer force and the submission of his subjects. A Machiavellian leader would relate to his subjects in a dictatorial manner. This indicates or shows that subjects will not have much if any, a voice in the political process, nor will they have the freedom to speak out against or denounce political issues that they oppose (Viroli1998, 140). The rights of the leader would thus be without limit and he will have absolute power.

Hobbes’ views on who should rule contrast with Machiavelli’s at least on the surface. Machiavelli roots for absolute power, the gaining of authority by the use of force and submission among citizens. Hobbes believes in a free man, and that the state should be ruled by a democratic government instead of a dictator. “The right of nature… is the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life.” (Harrison 2003, 67). Hobbes believes that all people have within them certain rights, liberties and yearning therefore they are entitled to pursue their own interests without being oppressed by their leaders. Leaders must therefore not force their citizens into submission. Power, he believes must be earned and maintained through a level of fairness (Rogers 2000, 123). The ruler’s motivation should stem from serving the interests of the people over whom they rule. The leader must lead effectively with a conscience instead of sheer force.

From the discussion of the two philosophers, it is possible to draw on the similarities and differences between them in regard to their political philosophies. Whereas it might tempt us to conclude they are parallel in their philosophies, this is not true; rather, there are some basic doctrines in which they actually agree. To varying degrees, they both advocate the use of force to maintain power- “It is not wisdom but Authority that makes a law” (Viroli 1998,144); “Not believing in force is the same as not believing in gravitation.” (Rogers 2000, 99). The virtual difference between them is how force is or should be used. Machiavelli believes in the use of force to gain and maintain power whereas Hobbes advocates for use of force only be to maintain power gained through or by legitimate means, the will of the people, and the cornerstone of freedom and liberty (Harrison 2003, 99).

Early political thinkers believe that authority and power first came from God. Hobbes in his work “Leviathan”, proposes that power comes from the social mandate first. He makes this claim on the basis that it is the nature of humans to secure its life by bonding with others to form a community. The community is then held together by a mutual desire to protect themselves from the wild whereas still maintain isolation of the self from others. In Hobbes’ view, a single person must be able to make decisions on behalf of the community. The individual, even if they do not enjoy the unanimous support of the citizens, becomes the sovereign. His concept of power and authority comes from the belief that the masses have rulers because they are needed to maintain the unification of society and also to protect the people from the wild. Machiavelli’s view slightly differs from Hobbes’ justification and origin of authority and power. Machiavelli agrees with him that a sovereign is needed for the unification of humanity rather than to be the arbitrary selection of society. The Machiavellian sovereign is a member of a reputable and influential family, a man with long bloodlines of other rulers and has no reason to offend others and thus rules effectively through his urbane nature. (Hans 1997, 102).

The legitimacy of power and political philosophy are fundamental issues that will always be debated and or discussed so long as thinking individuals still live on this planet. (Jackson 2003, 76). This discussion has clearly and vividly shown that the ideas of two people and from two different generations, who hold divergent views in numerous areas, also seem to agree on others. In conclusion, perhaps this candidly explores and explains that the nature of power and the state-authority, however, gained, should and must be exercised with extreme care, for without that caution, anarchy is likely to arise.

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George, Sorenson and Robert, Jackson. 2003. Introduction to International Relations. London: Oxford University Press.

Hans J, Morgenthau. 1997. Politics among Nations: “The Struggle for Power and Peace”. Lahore: Vanguard Books.

Harrison, R.2003. “Hobbes, Locke, and Confusion’s Masterpiece”: An Examination of Seventeenth-Century Political Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, G. A. & Sorell, T. (eds.) 2000. Hobbes and History. London: Routledge.

Viroli, M. 1998. Machiavelli. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cabera.

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