Friday, August 25, 2006

A Divide Between Ancient and Modern Philosophy?

Bridging the Ancient and Modern: Thoughts on Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke


Plato and Aristotle’s concerns in The Republic and Politics was understanding virtue and justice, and determining who was best fit to lead. In both cases, Plato and Aristotle were concerned about the political community at large, and about how morals and politics intersected. Nicolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke question this assumption to some extent, and relate their own concerns about good government, order, and human nature. This essay will contrast the works of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke with respect to their understanding of government. While many have argued that Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke make a clean break with the ancient philosophers, my contention is that some of the puzzles for Plato and Aristotle remained so for modern theorists. First, this paper will summarize succinctly the contributions of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke. Second, this essay will illuminate the differences between the three theorists. Lastly, the essay will explore the connections between ancient philosophy and modern philosophy.

Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke: the Foundations of Modern Philosophy

Machiavelli is generally seen as a transitional figure between the ancient and modern philosophers. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, however, Machiavelli was not concerned that government should be elevated to a “living moral force, capable of inspiring the people” (Machiavelli xvii). Machiavelli’s The Prince is more concerned with order than virtue, and thus morality is in some ways foreign. The Prince is an interesting work because it provides a blueprint for obtaining and maintaining power in a way that ancient works did not. Machiavelli’s writing is often characterized as “realistic” because it took the world for what it was – man as self-interested and calculating -- not for what it ought to be as many ancient philosophers tried to construct.[1] Machiavelli also gives prominence to the role of war and violence in his work. The Prince must not only be wise in governing, but also skilled in the art of war. To not be skilled in the latter renders a prince useless in the former.

Thomas Hobbes’ The Leviathan is similarly concerned with the state of war and the need to maintain order. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes understands humans as rational creatures who are self-interested and calculating. His understanding of the political community is not grounded in moral virtue. In fact, Hobbes passes no judgment on man’s virtue at all. “The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin,” Hobbes wrote, “…no more are the actions that proceed from those passions” (Hobbes 187). For Hobbes, men are made equal, and while some might be stronger or smarter, each live under the same constraints and fears (Hobbes 183). Hobbes’ famously understood the nature of mankind as “nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes 186). This forced man to seek the Commonwealth for protection from war, harm and death. The Commonwealth, simply put, is effective so long as it protects mankind. Unlike Machiavelli’s work, Hobbes does not actually deal with the mechanisms which make for effective governing. Hobbes’ work deals more with the social contract between man and the sovereign. In social contract theory, individuals give up their liberty to the sovereign – or state – in return for protection. The sovereign is thus obligated to man to keep the peace.

John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government is frequently seen as a direct response to Hobbes’ Leviathan. Locke and Hobbes both deal with man in the state nature. Hobbes and Locke agree that the laws of nature obligate man to treat one another equally, at least in terms of their life and possessions (Locke 5). However, unlike Hobbes, Locke seemed less worried that man would be in a constant state of war without government, or a sovereign (Locke x-xi). Locke’s work also reads less pessimistically than Hobbes’ or Machiavelli’s work. While Locke agrees that men are born free, the agency he gives to man is more robust than Hobbes understanding of mankind (Locke 4). Reading Hobbes, one gets the impression that mankind must choose the sovereign or suffer. Man in Locke’s state of nature chooses the sovereign consensually, and does so not because he fears for his life. Locke stands in particular opposition to Machiavelli. While Machiavelli had no problems with hereditary rule, Locke insisted that there were “ten other men” that could do that same job with as much wisdom and skill. Although government’s main objective is to provide order, stability and thus protection, the Second Treatise relates that the need for government also exists to protect “life, liberty and property” (Locke 71). Locke’s lasting legacy was his direct influence on America’s founding fathers, who admired his devotion to a very limited, or small, government.

Are the Modern Philosophers So Modern?

Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke were said to be the “modern break” with the ancient philosophers of Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, there are several notable contributions of the modern philosophers. First, all three philosophers deal with man as he is – rational, self-interested and calculating – and not how men ought to be. Second, these modern philosophers are the first to investigate individualism and consent in political life. Although Machiavelli speaks less on this subject, Hobbes and Locke explore why individuals seek government in the first place. This has been called social contract theory, because citizens submit – or consent to be governed – out of their own free will. Lastly, the modern philosophers’ major impact and difference from the ancients was their insistence that men were born equal. This sets the stage for the rise of modern, individualist liberal theory.

On the other hand, the modern philosophers shared with the ancient philosophers more ideas than they are given credit for. Machiavelli, for example, bridges the divide between ancient and modern. Like Plato, Machiavelli agreed that some were more suited than others to lead. As Machiavelli argued, “a wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men” (Machiavelli 41). Moreover, Machiavelli noted that only wise princes – which were relatively rare historically – could redress the evils and grievances that arise when governing (Machiavelli 22). Machiavelli also believes that aspects of governing resemble what Plato called the “noble lie”. In The Republic, Plato suggested that the Guardians would defend the Gods and a class of tales which would serve as the basis for order. It was not important that these tales where true, so long as they were believed (Plato 62). Similarly, Machiavelli’s five qualities that made for a good prince – mercy, faithfulness, humanity, religiosity and uprightness – were not necessarily to always be followed. However, it is necessary for the Prince to “appear to have them” (Machiavelli 139). Lastly, like Aristotle, Machiavelli believed that good laws were critical to a well-functioning regime. “The chief foundations of all states, new as well as old…are good laws,” wrote Machiavelli.[2] (Machiavelli 93). Aristotle agrees that good laws can “educate” the citizenry and stabilize government (Aristotle 110).

Hobbes’ Leviathan seems to stand in direct opposition to Plato and Aristotle, particularly his insistence that man is fundamentally self-interested. As well he presents a bleak state of affairs. But a closer of reading of Hobbes relays a different picture. In particular, many of Hobbes’ Laws of Nature are concerned with aspects of right and wrong and even morality to some extent. Hobbes’ urges those in the state of nature to treat others as they would like to be treated (Hobbes 214). Hobbes’ makes clear that man should not hate one another, or hold contempt of one another (Hobbes 211). Moreover, Hobbes’ urges man not to focus on the evil of the past but to look forward to the “greatness of the good to follow” (Hobbes 210). Lastly, Hobbes’ concern with order and stability was also Plato’s concern in constructing the appropriate political community.

John Locke also shares with the ancient philosophers several similarities. First, like Plato, Locke was very conservative in his preference for stability and order over change (Locke xiii). Locke was against violence and war. As he noted: “People are not so easily got out of their old forms as some are apt to suggest” (Locke xii). Secondly, Locke’s suspicion of certain understandings of liberty is reminiscent of Plato’s concerns with democracy (Plato 193). For Locke, liberty is not the ability for one to do whatever they want, whenever they please, “but freedom of men under government… to have a standing rule to live by” (Locke 15). Lastly, Locke’s concern for having good laws to prevent unwanted tyranny is similar to Aristotle’s desire for good laws. “Wherever law ends, tyranny begins if the law be transgressed to another’s harm” (Locke 114).


Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke are frequently considered to be the beginning of modern philosophy, and each mark a shift from the ancient to more liberal notions of government. Machiavelli’s The Prince is a handbook of sorts for accruing and maintaining power. The Prince also is a straightforward account of man’s self-interested, individualist ways. Hobbes’ The Leviathan is less an account of how to govern as it is a discussion for the need of authority and the sovereign. Hobbes’ discussion of the state of nature describes a place that is dangerous and full of war. Man desires the sovereign to escape this world. Locke’s discussion of the state of nature is less grim, and for Locke, government arises to protect not only life, but “liberty and property.” Locke also argues against the lawlessness and lack of consent inherent in tyrannical regimes. Although Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke are considered modern philosophers, each share some similarities with ancient philosophers. Surprisingly, the same problems that contemporary theorists explore – order, stability, consent, human nature and morality – confronted modern and ancient theorists as well. This essay has tried to show that connection.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Politics. Ed. Peter L. Phillips Simpson. Chapel Hill: UNC Publishing, 1997.

Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1987.

Locke, John. The Second Treatise on Government. New York, NY: Macmillan

Publishing Company, 1952.

Machiavelli, Nicolo. The Prince. London, UK: J.M Dent and Sons, 1948.

Plato. Republic. Ed. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1974.

[1] In fact, the entire basis for classical realism in IR theory develops from many aspects of The Prince.

[2] Of course, Machiavelli believes that these good laws can only be backed up by a state with “strong arms”.

Plato vs. Aristotle

The First Conservative: Contrasting Plato and Aristotle


Plato and Aristotle are our oldest political thinkers. Surprisingly, the same debates that guided Plato and Aristotle’s work remain with us today. What is the good life? What is justice? What is the best regime? Moreover, the question of who should govern is a longstanding area of dispute among political thinkers, theorists, practitioners, and ordinary citizens. This essay will focus on two issues that Plato and Aristotle raise in their work. First, it will address Plato’s and Aristotle’s different notions of individuals and their role in the city. Second, this essay will address how Plato’s and Aristotle’s understanding of individual citizens influences their political beliefs. In retrospect, Plato’s understanding is much more conservative than Aristotle’s, although in no way could we consider Aristotle a radical egalitarian. While this idea is in no way novel, this essay will try to retrieve conservatism from its ancient roots, in contrast to more modern conceptions that privilege libertarianism or free-markets.

Plato v. Aristotle: What Purpose is the Individual?

Plato’s ideal city is based on the four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. Wisdom makes the city wise, courage makes it brave, moderation is the understanding that everyone knows his or her role and justice means the “harmony that results when everyone is actively engaged in fulfilling his role and does not meddle with that of others” (Plato 85). The last point is an important one. His understanding of the city is that it evolves because it fulfills certain functional needs (Plato 39). The needs that are most obvious are food, which sustains nourishment, shelter, and lastly clothes. Only the city can provide all of these because each individual that makes up the city has a certain role of which he or she plays. “The association with each other,” offers Plato, “was the very purpose for which we establish the city” (Plato 41). The city would bring together the farmers, the craftsmen, the shepherds, the strong and the weak. Plato’s city functions like an organism, with each carrying out their daily routine to perfection. Drawn to its logical conclusion, this is why Plato believes that a special class of “guardians” is best fit to rule the city.

Plato’s view that every individual has a different, yet pertinent, role in the city influenced his understanding of who ought to rule. The first two books of Plato’s Republic are dedicated to understanding justice and virtue, and how this would relate to who would rule. Because most men are only concerned with ends and consequences and are generally unjust, only a few are virtuous enough to lead the city. But justice and virtue alone are not enough. The guardians – those who rule – must be physically strong, lovers of wisdom and knowledge and impervious to outside experience (Plato 46-51). The guardians also lived by a separate set of rules. They would own no private property, live in a camp to themselves and protect the city from intruders. Plato also extinguishes the divide between the public and the private. Plato argued for common wives and common children for the guardians, so as to build community among the city’s rulers. The women also share in the duties with the male guardians, including hunting food and fighting in war. Despite bringing disparate talents and roles together, the city plays a predominant role in unifying the community and preserving order, a key aspect of Platonic thought.

Aristotle does not disagree that the uniqueness in skill are determinants of a good city. Aristotle notes that “a city is made up not only of many human beings but also of human beings who differ in kind” (Aristotle 36). While Plato believes that by nature some are more fit than others for certain jobs, Aristotle disagrees. For Aristotle, any citizen has the ability to rule, so long as they follow the law and are properly educated. Moreover, though the citizens might be dissimilar from one another, each has a role in helping to define the community (Aristotle 81-83). In particular the purpose of being a citizen in a community is the ability to rule and be ruled. And the best regimes, so says Aristotle, are those where citizens have the ability and desire to make their own choices. This is accomplished by giving the majority the ability to rule.

Aristotle also believes that common wives and children would actually undermine the stability of the city. The notion of common possessions, what Aristotle calls communism, actually fractures the unity of the city. Rather than disintegrating the public and private realms, Aristotle argues that the separation is vital (Aristotle 41). As he asks: “What would happen if one reduced a many-voiced harmony to unison or rhythm to a single beat?” (Aristotle 42).

Plato v. Aristotle: Political Views

Plato and Aristotle’s disagreement over the nature of individuals and the city influences their view of politics and what is the “best” regime. For Plato, the guardians are the only individuals qualified to rule because of the unique skills and knowledge they possess. Only the guardians are capable of ruling because of their wisdom, courage, moderation and attachment to justice. Plato compares guardian to the physician. When one is sick you would knock on the door of the person that could heal you – a doctor. Similarly, when you needed to be governed you would let those that could govern do their job. Plato distinguishes between four forms of government. In timarchy, war and the army dominate and victory is the only thing prized. In oligarchies money and the acquisition of money drives the rulers. Democracy, the third type of regime, has no control at all and all desires are perceived to be equal. Lastly, in dictatorships the ruler acquires all power for himself and convinces the populace it is in their best interest to keep him in (Plato 193-194).

Plato’s disdain for democracy is the most notable conservative aspect of the Republic. G.M.A. Grube suggests that Plato’s discussion of democracy is filled with “broad irony.” Plato jokes that democracy is the result over the poor becoming victorious; “kill some of the other side, expel others, and to the rest they give an equal share of political power and offices” (Plato 206). Plato also describes the democratic regime as one in which people can do “anything they please” (Plato 206). Needless to say, Plato’s view of government is an elitist, conservative one, and only a few are capable of governing. The guardians have the natural aptitude for philosophy and governing that others do not (Plato 134). Plato’s conservatism is also revealed when he discusses his reverence for the Gods and the idea of the noble lie. For Plato, every city is built on some type of myth, and to unravel the myth would lead to chaos and disorder (Plato 62). A final point of conservatism in Plato is his resistance to change. He urges the guardians to resist the temptation to adopt new kinds of poetry and music.[1] It is the job of those that rule to be the “bulwarks” against change (Plato 90).

Aristotle would not be mistaken for a liberal, but he nevertheless questions some of the assumptions inherent in the Republic. Most importantly, Aristotle’s Politics is a more pluralist understanding of government, because Aristotle argues that citizens with proper education and obedience to the law are equipped to rule themselves and others. These citizens also come together to rule in the multitude – or majority – something than scares Plato and epitomizes mob rule. “…[M]any and not one should rule,” suggests Aristotle, “because anyone can rule well when educated by the laws and many ruling together and better than one ruling alone” (Aristotle 110). Aristotle’s opinion of virtue is similar, and stands in opposition to Plato. While Plato believes that the virtuous are small in number and that their virtue is inherent, Aristotle thinks that virtue and justice can be taught to citizens. The Aristotelian city is in some ways more inclusive that Plato’s. Lastly, Aristotle disagrees with Plato with regards to change. In both art and law, Aristotle argues laws sometimes must be changed, and that art is not always perfect to begin with, so why try and preserve it as such. While Aristotle notes that laws must be written in “universal” terms, when writing laws the rulers must also understand the “particulars” of a given situation (Aristotle 58).[2]


Today modern conservatism is noted by calls for limited government, free-markets and dedication to the family. But our first conservative, Plato, challenged those ideas. For Plato, a strong government (or state) was critical to preserve order and protect the city, wealth was frowned upon and the root of much ill, and the family unit – at least for guardians – was extinguished. But Plato ties back into modern conservatism on several points. Plato was worried about mob rule and suspicious of any idea that gave ruling power to common citizens. Plato also resisted change, and charged the guardians with being responsible for seeing that the laws and arts were protected. As well, Plato believed that “national’ myths, noble lies and religion were important, if but for no other reason than to provide order. Aristotle, Plato’s counterpart, disagrees on these issues. Aristotle is more willing to give citizens the ability to rule, is not as resistant to change, and ultimately thinks that with the proper laws and teaching the multitude would have the ability to govern themselves. Though Plato and Aristotle are our “ancient” writers their disputes and disagreements are still apropos in today’s political dialogue. They might be surprised to find, were they living today, that the things they argued about years ago still stir emotions in the present. Given that Plato believed the pursuit of justice and knowledge to be never-ending, he might not have been surprised in the least.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Politics. Ed. Peter L. Phillips Simpson. Chapel Hill: UNC Publishing, 1997.

Plato. Republic. Ed. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1974.

[1] Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind argues similarly that Rock n’ Roll music and beat poetry worked to undermine society as a whole in the 1950s and 1960s.

[2] Aristotle’s retort to Plato almost sounds like the exchanges between the “original intent” proponents of the constitution, and those that stress a “living constitution.”