Machiavelli’s the Prince and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan

In Machiavelli’s The Prince and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the philosophers argue theories on the construction and securement of political authority. Both Hobbes and Machiavelli present a view that human nature is motivated by passions such as selfishness and greed and this is the essence on which the political environment is derived. It is these characteristics of human nature that precept war, chaos, and political instability. Political authority must then defuse, in the case of Hobbes, or “realize”, in the case of Machiavelli, the natural condition of humans in order to maintain political stability. Hobbes argues that the Leviathan, is necessary to defuse the potential of humans natural passions and keep instability and violence out of the Commonwealth. Machiavelli, on the other hand, argues for a prince who uses ethics and violence instrumentally to manipulate citizens into obedience and the rejection of selfishness and greed. This essay will examine both theories, ultimately realizing that Hobbes’ view of political authority is more plausible as a solution to political violence and instability.

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In Leviathan, Hobbes uses what he terms the ‘state of nature’ to illustrate the potential of human’s natural passions to create instability and chaos. The state of nature describes a condition without common power or authority. Hobbes views human nature as inherently motivated by self-interest and the desire for power; Unrestricted by civil law, these desires create a perpetual state of conflict where humans are in constant competition with one another for resources and survival (Hobbes, Leviathan). This constant competition inevitably leads to the war “of every man against every man” (Hobbes, Leviathan). He goes on to describe life in this state as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”(Hobbes, Leviathan). The importance of the Leviathan is thus derived from Hobbes’ account of what life would be like devoid of a common political authority in which the passions of human nature perpetuate social and political chaos.

While human’s natural propensity for self-preservation and power perpetuates war and violence in the state of nature, the same desire means humans naturally fear death and injury. It is this fear and anxiety that drives human reasoning to seek a more secure and peaceful life. In order to achieve this, Hobbes argues humans willingly give up some of their rights to a common authority in order to gain protection from the constant threat of death and anxiety for the future. Hobbes, believes that moral code is strengthened by the existence of an authority figure. As he states, “Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war…” (Hobbes, Leviathan). The Leviathan thus is important because it motivates individuals to adhere to a stronger moral code and reject the natural passions of self-preservation that would normally hurdle them into a state of war. It is for this reason that Hobbes finds it so necessary to argue for a strong central figure; without it, human’s natural passions will lead to radical political instability and total chaos.

In Lord of the Flies, we see many parallels to Hobbes’ political theory. Where Hobbes believes the presence of a strong central authority strengthens moral code, we observe the inverse in the film. In the absence of a strong central authority the boys on the island begin to abandon all morality, eventually behaving in brutish, violent ways. They begin to become concerned only with hunting and a Hobbesian survival of the fittest mentality. Additionally, this film reflects Hobbes’ argument that competition of scarce resources and the desire for power will spark conflict. The competition between Ralph and Jack’s group reflects this, as the two battle for authority and power. The rest of the boys ultimately defect to Jack’s group which pursues that which ensures survival. This conflict ends up creating the most violent behavior of the film, such as Simon and Piggy’s death. Absence of strong central authority and Hobbes’ Leviathan, society and morality break down and humans are thrust into the miserable condition that Hobbes anticipates.

In The Prince Machiavelli also considers human nature to be inherently “bad”. He states: “For this can be said of men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, avoiders of danger, [and] greedy for profit”. The nature of man thus results in war, violence, and self-serving political actors. Machiavelli argues that humans naturally bad behavior must be mitigated by a prince whose main goal is to safeguard the state and secure power. By using ethics and violence instrumentally a prince can manipulate the people into obedience and peace.

Machiavelli believes that manipulation is the most essential tool to maintain power and control. In chapters 6-9, Machiavelli identifies ways in which a prince can rise to power. The distinction Machiavelli makes of these conditions demonstrate Machiavelli’s argument that a prince can only be successful in reducing political violence if he has the ingenuity to use ethics and violence properly. That is, that he can first positively manipulate the people’s view of himself and use violence such that his authority is not questioned. One way a prince can rise to power is via being elected by the populace. In this condition, the prince is positively viewed and has the love and support of his people, but his lack of the use of violence means he is not feared. He thus has not guarded against attack by enemies and runs the risk of destruction caused by war “for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good” (Machiavelli, The Prince). A second way a prince can be elected is through cruel and immoral means, relying heavily on violence (Machiavelli, The Prince).

In this condition, the prince is feared, but is hated by his subjects. Machiavelli identifies hate as a real danger which causes a lack of loyalty among subjects and alliances and an environment of paranoia. In both conditions, the prince is unsuccessful in maintaining power and controlling for political violence. The most successful prince, according to Machiavelli, is one who is both loved and feared. This means he uses violence in order to deter individuals from challenging his authority, but not insofar that he is hated. It also means that he is “good”, or manipulates the positive view of himself, to the degree that he gains the support of his subjects. According to Machiavelli, it is essential that the prince uses both these instruments to end the destruction caused by war and greedy, self-seeking political actors.

In the film Dangerous Liaisons, one can also see the use of manipulation in acquiring power. Meteuil and Valmont decide to manipulate the people around them for their own personal gain. At first, Meteuil’s manipulation of Cecil has to do with getting revenge against Bastide. As Machiavelli discusses in The Prince, manipulation ought to have moral content and focus. Rulers should not use deceit erroneously without the purpose of maintaining power and control. He offers Borgia as the quintiessential example for how trickery and manipulation are sometimes necessary in order to gain power. Borgia, with his punishment of the minister, created a spectacle that manipulated his subjects into being both satisfied and scared. The subjects were satisfied because the people believed that he was a just ruler who offered swift punishment, and scared because the violent display made them fearful of his power. Borgia was deceitful, but his deciet had moral content and purpose. However, it soon becomes clear in Dangerous Liaisons that the motivation for meddling in other people’s lives becomes causing unneccesary destruction around them for their own pleasure and greed. Ultimately, it is this unbridled desire for power over other people and their happiness that leads to the characters demise. Machiavelli would condemn the use of manipulation in this way.

Ultimately, I believe Hobbes’ argument for the Leviathan is a more plausible solution to political violence. As we see in Lord of the Flies, and in many instances throughout history, when civilized rule and safety is removed people will often turn to the militant mindset. When people are not protected from the constant fear of death and uncertainty, the integrity of the sovereign is lost and individuals resort to those passions that ensure survival. Once they have resorted to self-preservation, society can no longer function peacefully. However, when the Leviathan is in place, individuals are bound by civil laws and morality that prevent the passions of man from creating conflict and constant war. All participants in the commonwealth agree to give up their own rights to violence and cede to the sovereign. In this condition, they are willingly submitting themselves to the authority of the sovereign because anxiety about the future and the fear of death motivates them to seek peace.

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Machiavelli’s The Prince and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. (2019, Jul 09). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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