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Both Hobbes and Machiavelli are often said to have negative theories of human nature. Is this correct for both? Neither? One but not the other? Construct an argument that considers how their views define human nature, how they differ from previous historical examples, and how their views are similar or different.
The Unreliable and The Irrational
The renaissance as a cultural movement was momentous, provoking changes and producing a parallel revolution in modern political thought. Modern thought and philosophy have its origins in the Renaissance as patrons and scholars rejected the Aristotelian and medieval outlook on the world with romanticizing how the world should be and instead, provided analysis of how the world really is. Two of the most influential writers of early modern thought are Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, writers who shaped the best government on the basis of human nature. Their texts centered around beliefs that humans are intrinsically selfish in their actions and thus, incapable of maintaining a pristine social order without a strong central power. In the works of both Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, the authors define and extrapolate on the relative negative conditions of human nature, Machiavelli focusing on human unreliability and Hobbes centering on their irrationality, to explore the ideal form of functioning government that would account for such behaviors. In doing so, their created powers would work to maintain the artificial harmony among these individuals and illuminate how humans are incapable of surviving without such a power. To support this claim, the following essay will analyze the works of Machiavelli and Hobbes individually in reference to medieval scholars and culminate with a comparison of their approaches.
Niccolò Machiavelli, a man of the Italian Renaissance, saw humans as having both positive and negative traits but with the natural tendency to pursue individual interests above all. Throughout his work, The Prince, he explicitly mentions what he believes to be the innate traits of human beings. They act in their self-interest, however their affections can be swayed and lost. He explains early on in the text that, “men generally: they are ungrateful, fickle, feigners and dissemblers, avoiders of danger, eager for gain.” Humans are expected to remain satisfied in life as long as there is no oppression or conflict. Nonetheless, devotion can be won and lost, and benevolence cannot be absolute. Machiavelli’s statements reflecting upon human nature are constructed to serve as a justification for his argument regarding the way a prince of his state should lead. He ironically asserts that to be a good ruler meant that you would have to learn to not be good. The Prince must be prepared to cast away ethical concerns to uphold the state, so it may function. It was shocking for many as it went against the medieval idea of the divine right of kings. As Saint Aquinas stated, “It is evident therefore that divine providence imposes order on all things.” Kings were seen to uphold the celestial duty and be good, but Machiavelli transforms this idea due to his view of human nature. Machiavelli’s argument has a compelling thought process that makes it appear reasonable, however most of these assumptions of man are not particularly grounded in evidence, leading to easy criticism.
Beyond quotations from the text, there is a clear ‘atmosphere’ that Machiavelli constructs. Put simply, he does not trust humans as they are unreliable when acting for others. Throughout Machiavelli’s text, he assumes there is absolutely no reason to expect someone to act if it is not in line with their own interests or gain. In his work, The Discourses, he plainly states, “Men never do good unless necessity drives them to do it.” Therefore, it is unsafe to rely on their actions to be against their individual interests. He also contends that through human nature, individuals will consider these interests based on secular terms. Meaning, motivationally the most significant objectives in this world are money, power, and glory and the vigorous protection of security and existence. While this is universally true, there is no true harmony among humans’ interests making it nearly impossible to anticipate the actions of another. This is exceptionally clear in the political realm with glory and power which are advocated for passionately and give rise to conflict. Machiavelli acknowledges the promise and good in humans but consequently cannot ignore the inherent unreliability in their actions in regard to those around them, so goodwill can easily be lost.
Following the innovative texts published by Niccolò Machiavelli, came Thomas Hobbes and his radical text, Leviathan. He creates an analytical outline which frameworks the state of nature and the natural condition of all humans. In contrast to Machiavelli, it is not unreliability that distinctively characterizes human nature but instead, irrationality. While humans live and experience the state of nature, there is no reason to recognize the consequences of each action. Hobbes argues that every individual is born, and by nature equals, with the human right of liberty and reason to act accordingly in their surroundings and ultimately pursue seemingly irrational choices if deemed appropriate. Hobbes states in chapter 14 of Leviathan, “The Right of Nature,’ which writers commonly call jus naturale, 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; and consequently of doing anything which in his own judgment and reason he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.” The key argument Hobbes creates on the basis of irrationality in the name of self-interest is that this natural condition is liable to initiate war.
Humans, motivated by seemingly primitive and antagonistic passions, are inclined to disregard the natural right of security. He explains, “And because the condition of man, as hath been declared in the precedent chapter, is a condition of war of every one against every one, in which case every one is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies, it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.” In an ironic conclusion, the exercise of an individual’s natural right while in the state of nature, is not possible for Hobbes. Due to the unavoidable consequences of war in the state of nature, Hobbes suggests the only remedy is the implementation of the civitas. His proposed fix allows society to retain the individual interests of the people but implement a natural law to foster goodwill in the people. While Hobbes’ view is convincing, many do not share the same inherent understanding. Take Aquinas for example, who held the belief that this idea of natural law was implanted into one’s conscience by God while Hobbes argues humans are limited and artificial law is required so society may function.
As humans are only driven by pure selfish irrationalities, three main consequences arise in the state of nature. Those include: the complete absence of justice, law and personal property. In absolute freedom that is granted, people are have the right to give in to what their heart contends as long as they personally see a benefit to themselves. The one right above all is that to protect your life and existence to avoid the risk of death. With no set of laws, there is no injustice or wrong doings. It is in natural right and human nature to keep alive without fear of a common power administering justice. Ownership is not present and as a consequence property is nonexistent along with industry. He emphasizes that the state of nature will always lead to war and can only be fixed with law derived from reason. Hobbes, appreciative of the natural good that is gifted to each individual to act virtuously, confidently argues that the selfish and irrational drive of humans will continuously overcome such virtue to fulfill their needs, no matter the cost. Therefore, the artificial help of the civitas is required to retain order and construct a thriving state.
While they differ in what the driving force of human nature is, both Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes highlight the detrimental effect of glory on such nature. While Machiavelli argues that common people do not strive for glory, those who want to be successful and strong leaders must possess glory. In The Prince, he explicates that attaining glory does not have to be through necessarily selfless ways, instead he suggests it is much better to be feared than loved if the decision must be made. Machiavelli associates the strength of a leader through his ability to use brutish methods while ruling a merciful state. Through examining his argument, an individual can emphasize that Machiavelli’s perception of glory is the standard in measuring the greatness and strength of a leader and their natural nature. Accordingly, a leader’s selfish ability to achieve glory overwhelms the violence and fear he may instill. Hobbes has a slightly more negative view on glory in relation to human nature. He considers it to be one of the three principal causes of quarrel alongside competition and diffidence. As a result, war will ensue which he describes as, “and the life of man is solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes proposes that it will push men to act in their own self-interest, directly or indirectly, based upon good opinions man may receive. While Machiavelli sees glory as a distinct part of human nature for leaders and Hobbes sees it as one of the driving evils in all men, both recognize the inherent selfish drive men have to achieve glory and better their own experiences.
Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes are two revolutionary modern thinkers that transformed secular medieval thought into deep analytical considerations. As writers and modern thinkers, their general perspective on human nature is characteristically described as negative and undermining which can be understood based on their claims that humans are inherently unreliable, irrational, and selfish. The issue of morality, or rather the lack of it, is at the forefront of their analysis on human nature. This lack of a common good and moral code gives justification for their individually constructed authority, so the world does not fall into uncontrolled chaos. Although their claims regarding human nature may be dark and unforgiving in description, Machiavelli and Hobbes provide a commentary on human nature and its origins in politics unlike anything that preceded them.
- Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses, ed. Bernard Crick, Leslie J. Walker, S.J and Brian Richardson (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).
- Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Quentin Skinner and Russell Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
- St. Thomas Aquinas, On Politics and Ethics, ed. Paul E. Sigmund (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987).
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Quentin Skinner and Russell Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 59.
 Machiavelli, The Prince, 57.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, On Politics and Ethics, ed. Paul E. Sigmund (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987), 11.
 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses, ed. Bernard Crick, Leslie J. Walker, S.J and Brian Richardson (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 112.
 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 91.
 Hobbes, Leviathan, 91.
 Aquinas, On Politics and Ethics, 10.
 Machiavelli, The Prince, 59.
 Hobbes, Leviathan, 89.
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